“You’re not my son. Get out–and DON’T come back.”
The words landed hard on Nicholas’ ears. It seemed like he was only dreaming–like it was only a nightmare–but he knew it was real when a heavy suitcase landed at his feet. A clinging sensation of terror mixed with relief washed over him as he took the case and walked out the door. As it slammed shut behind him, he wondered where to go, and more importantly, how to explain his sudden homelessness. This day had been a long time in coming, but he hadn’t expected it to be so soon.
His father had no intention to surrender the bottle, but Nick had hoped that they could at least co-exist with their own beliefs. That proved to be wishful thinking, as Mr. Jones so grieved the loss of his wife that his greatest hope was to find complete companionship in his only son. But alas, Nicholas saw an evil in liquor and the night life that Mr. Jones could not understand. All he could see was that his son was a selfish, heartless boy.
Mr. Jones had been the heartless one, in reality, drowning himself in liquor after the funeral, and neglecting his young son ever since. A bright boy, he had grown into a fine, caring young man of seventeen.
The night air was warm and fresh, but Nick felt like an ice cube. He needed to leave the premises–quickly–but his whole being seemed frozen to the front porch. How could his father kick him out like this, after he had patiently put up with so much trouble and abuse?
He dared remain on the porch no longer, for in a drunken rage his father was capable of anything. Slowly, he dragged the heavy thing along the street, painfully aware that anyone he knew could observe him at anytime. A glance at his watch reminded him of the untimely hour of 12 A.M., and he relaxed a little.
A tiny blue house with an even bluer door rested on the corner. It was the home of his father’s sister; a stout woman with a warm heart and an equally hot temper. He would try her first, knowing well that the consequences were unpredictable, but unwilling to drag the god-forsaken suitcase any further than he must.
A couple of minutes and soon he was knocking at the door, his timid raps growing louder with each pause. His heart sank when he heard nothing, but as he turned to go, a tired voice drifted down from an open window.
“Since when do people start makin’ sales calls in the middle of the night?”
“It’s me, Aunt Sally,” the boy said. “Come down a minute–I need to talk to you.”
“Nicholas? Child, ain’t you supposed to be in bed! Let me find my night-robe.”
Soon, the woman ambled down the stairway and opened the door.
“Good grief, what’cha doing with that suitcase?” the woman cried. “That father of yours ain’t stone drunk and beatin’ you up, is he?”
“Well, yes and no,” Nicholas replied. “Look … I’ll be honest with you, Aunt Sally. I need to ask you a favour.”
Salvadora Jones took a good, hard look at her young nephew. She searched his eyes for clues, and what a sad, bitter story they told. Taking him by the arm, she drew him inside and shut the door.
“Kick off them shoes by the doormat, Nick, and hang up your jacket on the rack. When you’re through, come in the kitchen for somethin’ warm to drink. I’ll keep ya’ for the night.”
The boy did as he was told, removing the brown leather flats and spring coat that were once the rage in his father’s day. The comforting aroma of hot chocolate and tea biscuits drifted in from the kitchen, ticking his nostrils.
“What’cha doin’ out there so long, boy?” his aunt called. “Come and eat up before it all gets as cold as a dog’s nose!”
Nicholas sat down at the large oak table and lifted the mug to his parched lips. The steaming liquid felt good flowing over his tongue and inside his cheeks. “Almost as good as a mother’s touch …” he thought to himself as he watched his aunt bustle back and forth between the kitchen counters and her grand old oven. An ordinary sight to most–to him it was like a dream from which he was sure to awaken. Another sip of the sweet, milky drink convinced him that, for the time being, it was a reality, not a dream.
“Here you go, big boy!” chirped a happy voice as a plate of hot, buttery biscuits appeared beneath his nose. “Look at ya’. I reckon it’s been ages since you had something good n’ warm in your stomach, mm?”
“Sorry to say, but you’re right about that,” Nick agreed. “Dad drinks most of the money, so I eat whatever I can find.”
“Your father needs a mighty good visit from God Almighty,” Sally said, clicking her tongue, “to break that curse o’ his. Why, I never thought all the imps in Hades could bring my brother down from the pinnacle of a man he use to be! But when your sweet momma died …I guess that was the weak link in the chain for him.”
Nick bit into a hot biscuit, squeezing his eyes shut as he did. The tears …oh, wouldn’t they quit threatening to fall? He chewed slowly … slowly …but it wasn’t working. The pain, the memories …everything came flooding back like a wall of water from a broken dam. He swallowed hard, then opened his eyes and grasped his aunt’s hands.
“Aunty,” he began, his voice small and weak. “Let me live with you. Please.”
Salvadora drew back in surprise. “Live with me, hun? Why, Nicholas, I couldn’t do that–you’re still under age, and I’d need permission from your father, and you know he–”
“He doesn’t care,” Nick interrupted, his eyes filling with tears. “He claims I’m not much of a son to him, since I never join him for a drink or a night on the town. He says I’m more of a live-in maid than a son, taking care of the house and all, but never spending quality time with him …”
“Quality time, eh?” Sally said, her words tinged with bitterness. “In a dim, smoky bar with hard liquor and those ill-clad females of the night? That’s ‘quality’ time?”
“I guessed as much,” the boy replied. “It seems I have pushed him to the limits of his patience, for not more than a half-hour ago, he branded me as unintelligent and ordered me out of the house.”
“He said unintelligent?”
“Well, he used another word,” Nick smiled. “But it wouldn’t be fitting or proper for me to repeat it to a lady.”
Aunty Sally threw her head back, bursting into high, melodious laughter. “Nicholas, you are a true gentleman,” she said, wiping her eyes. “Well, I won’t make you say it, but if I know my brother as well as I think I do, I’m sure he said ‘idiot’.”
“Exactly,” replied her nephew. “And so, here I am. I really won’t be a bother, and I’ll work for my room and board. You won’t have to be waiting on me, no-sir-ree!”
“Nicholas,” his aunt said, her voice unusually quiet. “You will never be thought of as a ‘bother’ in my house. You can work, yes–it’ll do any young man a world of good, but I ain’t accepting that as ‘payment’ for you stayin’ here. You’re my nephew, and it’s my duty to take care of you! I couldn’t charge you for those things you have a clear right to: love and a roof over your young head.”
A broad smile spread over Nick’s face as he flew from his seat and flung his arms around the tiny, round woman. “Thank you, Aunt Sally … thank you.”
A heavy knock followed the voice at the door, sending an instant chill down Nick’s spine.
“He’s come to take me back!” the boy shrieked, running up the stairs into his bedroom.
“Don’t you worry about that, child! Come back down here and stop acting like a baby girl,” Sally teased as she hurried towards the door. She opened it and raised a questioning brow at her younger brother.
“For heaven’s sake, William! What’s all the racket for?”
“I’ve come to find that son of mine,” the man replied. “He ran away from home last night, and I’m sure he came here.”
“Ran away, huh? I heard that you sent him away.”
“Do you really believe the likes of him? Why, that little liar. I’ll whip the blood of the devil out of that boy as soon as I get my hands on him–you just watch!”
“Now, now, William,” the woman soothed, patting the raging man on the head. “You’ve been drinking again, and so early in the morning too! Come, sit down for a little while and rest. Then you can go along home.”
Subdued for the moment, William staggered inside the house and collapsed into an easy chair. “Where is he …” he groaned. “Where is my Nicholas?”
“He’s upstairs,” Sally replied. “Do you want to see him?”
“Yes…” came the half-human reply. “Yes … bring my baby boy to me ..”
Sally made her way to the foot of the stairs and quietly called the boy’s name. “Your father wants to see you, hun. Come down for a moment, won’t you?”
Nicholas froze. Was this a trick to send him back to his father? “No. I’m staying here.”
“Nick, please … he’s a little drunk but wants to see you.”
“More like he wants to beat me up. I’m not coming.”
“But Nicholas …”
“Aunt Sally, it’s time for me to move on and start over. I don’t need to keep the memory of my old life alive. I’m staying up here until he leaves. I don’t want to see him again. Ever.”
The woman’s shoulders drooped as she turned and went back to the living room. William, still half mad with liquor, glanced up at her with eager expectation.
“He’s coming?” he asked, a shaky smile on his face.
“No,” Sally replied, in her usual matter-of-fact way. “He says … he says he won’t be coming down.”
“Nick … my son … he doesn’t want … to see me?” came the dull reply. “Lil’ Nick … doesn’t … love me …anymore?”
A tear rolled down the man’s tired cheek, but he brushed it away. Staggering to his feet, he shuffled to the open door and stepped outside, closing it behind him as he called a half-hearted farewell to his beloved sister.
Nicholas crouched motionless beside the bannister, his heart pounding like the African drums he had read about in the storybooks. The words echoed again and again in his mind. “Lil’ Nick … doesn’t …love me … anymore?” The boy stiffened and bit his lip. “No, I don’t,” he whispered angrily, “and I never will.”
The years went by. Nicholas approached graduation day with some of the highest grades in the class. As he did up a crude list of invitees, his aunt entered the bedroom and planted a tiny kiss in his curly head of hair. Glancing at the paper, she smiled. “You’ll be inviting them folks to your big day, Nick?”
“Sure thing, Aunt Sally,” he replied. “Not too many, as I want to leave room for other students to bring their guests. I think I’ll just bring you, my buddies Jerry and Peter, and my friend Suzanna from the other high school.”
Sally’s face darkened slightly. “You ain’t … you ain’t gonna invite your father?”
“No,” came the icy reply. “I’m not.”
Nicholas graduated, and his father was not present.
Some time later, Nicholas began work as the carpenter he had always wanted to be. His command of geometry and other realms of mathematics was excellent, and in the years following teen-hood he changed from a thin, awkward boy to a tall, broad-shouldered man of twenty-two. His voice, always mellow, was much deeper now, and he was as strong as the strongest ox in the countryside … or so they said. All the girls liked him, but he did not like all the girls. There was only one that he felt he truly loved and that was Suzanna.
“My, what a fine girl Suzie is!” Salvadora bubbled one day. “A right good cook–and seamstress too! And she don’t fear to challenge a soul, man or woman. She’s got pretty eyes and that lovely chestnut complexion that well reminds me of the hot chocolate you love so much…”
“Aunt Sally!” Nicholas sputtered, noting the mischievous twinkle in the woman’s eye. She pulled him by the ears and grinned. “Sounds like a dream come true for any good, hardworking batchelor, like my lil’ Nick …”
“Why, Aunty! How did you know that I…”
“Oh, I was once a pretty spring chicken m’self, boy,” she said, smiling. “I know when a youngin’ has got them butterflies in his stomach and shining stars in his eyes. I could see you had your heart set on Suzanna from ages ago.”
A smile teased the corner of Nick’s mouth. For a second, he looked like the little boy he once was, face full of hope and expectation. His eyes grew wide with excitement and he grasped his aunt’s hands with glee.
“Well, Aunty,” he began. “I guess I do have a little somethin’ in my heart for her. More than a little, actually. I’ve been thinking it’s about time that I tell her …I mean, ask her… well, I hope she don’t say no…”
Salvadora held her ample tummy and laughed ’til there were no more laughs left to laugh. “To the altar!” she cried, an infectious smile on her face. “If she don’t say yes in an eye-blink, why–I’ll be hanged!”
“I guess I’d better do up a guest list, eh?” Nick asked, pulling a sheet of paper from the drawer.
“A good idea,” his aunt agreed. She was quiet for a moment. “You gonna invite your father?”
“No,” came the icy reply. “I’m not.”
A few months later, Nicholas and Suzanna were married, and his father was not present.
Time went on, and the happy couple built a house and started a farm. Nick’s carpentry business was a great success, and Suzie brought in a fair income of her own with her enviable skill at sewing. With the thrill of business and love for his charming wife driving his life, he thought little of his father or the “old life” from which he had escaped–until his first child, a son, was born.
As he held the squirming little creature in his arms, he suddenly felt a pang of regret … remorse … but he brushed it away. His father didn’t deserve his attention–after all, he had failed him, mistreated him! But this little one …ah, he would have every reason to love his daddy, for Nick would be the best father known to man.
The years passed. Six more children were born to Nicholas and Suzanna, two boys and four girls, all miniature reflections of their parents. But none was so strikingly similar as the firstborn, Sunich. Though named for both parents, he was the spitting image of his father. In looks and actions he was a perfect replica–and naturally, he became his father’s favourite. As the proud father played with his young son, he vaguely remembered a time when his father too used to play and romp with him in the meadows near the town, whirling him around in the air and exclaiming how he was his pride and joy–his perfect child. A lump began to form in his throat as he thought of William, now retired, living all alone in the big, old house. Clenching his teeth, he tried to push the memory aside. “Never,” he hissed. “Never.”
The voice, usually cheery and warm, now sounded flat and fearful. The man, now fifty, turned and grasped his wife’s hands. “What is it, darling? You look like you’ve seen a ghost!”
Suzanna said nothing, but stared at the red brick surrounding the glowing fireplace. Her face, initially impassive, suddenly twitched and morphed into a picture of anguish. Bursting into tears, she threw her arms around his neck and wept. Startled, her husband held her close, then pushed her away gently and tried to source the problem. As she moved her hand to his chest, he noticed she held a piece of paper. Taking it from her, he immediately recognized the slanted handwriting scrawled across its surface.
“He’s … gone?” Nick gasped, clutching the note in disbelief. “My little boy …our little boy …he’s left us?”
Suzanna looked up at him with the saddest pair of eyes he had ever seen. “He … he says you’ve changed since he decided not to become a carpenter, like you, but an engineer instead. He says that you talk about his grandfather with such hatred for the way he treated you when you didn’t do things his way, but then you turn around and treat him just about the same way that William did for something far less serious …”
“He says that I…” Nicholas stopped mid-sentence, his eyes growing wide with dismay. Turning to his wife, he tried to speak, but found he could not. Crumpling the paper into a ball, he hurled it at the fire and strode out of the room. Suzanna dove for the fireplace and caught the note before it fell in. “It’s true …” she moaned to herself, “I know it, and Nick knows it. It’s true.”
Outside, Nicholas paced back and forth in the corn fields, wringing his hands in despair. “My son … my own son! Leaves! Just like that. Not even a hug and a pleasant farewell, just an old note left on the counter. Sure, I haven’t always done everything right. I’m not the perfect father, but what about all the good things I’ve done for him in the past? Surely he’ll love me for that …”
A sudden wave of understanding passed over the hurting man. Deep within the caves of his mind, voices began to echo and re-echo with increasing intensity.
“Where is he … where is my Nicholas? … bring my baby boy to me ..” “Your father wants to see you …come down… won’t you?” “No. I’m staying here.” “Nick, please …” “…I’m not coming.” “But Nicholas …” “…it’s time for me to move on … I don’t want to see him again… ever…” “He’s coming?” “No … he says he won’t be coming down.” “Nick … my son … he doesn’t want … to see me? …Lil’ Nick … doesn’t … love me …anymore?”
Nicholas returned to the house and his grieving wife. “Dear, I’ll be going out for a bit. Let the children go ahead and eat their supper … I may not be back in time.”
Suzanna nodded, and Nick left the house. He hitched up a horse to the wagon and rode … down the country road …past the mills and silos …past the school and church yards … past the old blue house. Coming to a stop at the end of a long driveway, he stepped down from the wagon and walked to the door. He knocked, his timid raps growing louder with each pause. His heart sank when he heard nothing, but as he turned to go, a tired voice drifted down from an open window.
“Who wants to see an old man badly enough to be knocking the door down?”
“It’s me, Dad,” the man said. “Come down a minute–I need to talk to you.”
“Nicholas?” the hoarse voice exclaimed. “Oh, my son! What a surprise! Let me find my bed slippers.”
Soon, the old man ambled down the stairway and opened the door.
“Nicholas …” he crooned. “It’s been a long time. Sally hasn’t thrown you out, has she?”
“No, I’m married now, so I threw myself out,” Nicholas chuckled. “Look … I’ll be frank with you, Dad. I need to ask you a favour.”
William Jones took a good, hard look at his only son. He searched his eyes for clues, and what a sad, bitter story they told. Taking him by the arm, he drew him inside and shut the door.
“Leave those shoes by the doormat, Nick, and hang up your jacket on the rack. When you’re through, come in the kitchen for something warm to drink. Then you can ask me.”
The man did as he was told, removing the same brown leather flats and spring coat that were once the rage in his father’s day. The comforting aroma of peppermint tea and crackers drifted in from the kitchen, ticking his nostrils.
“What’s taking so long, son?” his father called. “Come and drink this up before it gets cold!”
Nicholas sat down at the small oak table and lifted the mug to his lips. The steaming liquid felt good flowing over his tongue and inside his cheeks. “Almost as good as a mother’s touch …” he thought to himself as he watched his father move slowly back and forth between the kitchen counters and the grand old pantry. An ordinary sight to most–to him it was like a dream from which he was sure to awaken. Another sip of the hot, minty drink convinced him that it was indeed a reality, not a dream.
“Here you go, old boy!” chirped a happy voice as a plate of crunchy saltine crackers appeared beneath his nose. “Look at you. I’m sure it’s been ages since you had some of these good old crackers, mm?”
“Sorry to say, but you’re right about that,” Nick agreed. “Aunt Sally and my wife Suzie are always bakin’ something, so I rarely end up eating crackers, as much as I love them.”
“Your aunt is a right good woman,” William said, nodding his head. “Handy, capable, and best of all, she’d never do the wrong thing, even if it looked like the right thing for the time. Why, all the imps in Hades couldn’t bring my sister down from the pinnacle of a woman she is to me! I was once like her, but… when your sweet momma died …I guess that was the weak link in the chain for me.”
Nick bit into a cracker, squeezing his eyes shut as he did. The tears …oh, wouldn’t they quit threatening to fall? He chewed slowly … slowly …but it wasn’t working. The pain, the memories …everything came flooding back like a wall of water from a broken dam. He swallowed hard, then opened his eyes and grasped his father’s hands.
“Dad,” he began, his voice small and weak. “I love you. I really, really do. Forgive me, please.”
“Son, there’s something about becoming a parent that helps one to understand his own parents better than he ever would,” William was silent for a while, then he looked his only son in the eyes. “Of course I forgive you. How could I not? You didn’t understand, and besides, you were right back then. I’m so glad to know that … that you love me after all.”
As father and son embraced, Nicholas felt a light tap on his shoulder. Turning around, he looked into the face of his twenty-six year old son.
“Dad,” the young man replied, tears brimming in his eyes, “I never thought you would forgive Grandpa.”
“I never thought I would either,” Nicholas replied. “But I guess … I guess you’ve given me new insight into the saying, ‘like father, like son’ …”
“Yes,” William nodded. “Sons grow up to be more or less like their fathers. Even if there are outward differences, the tendencies are the same.”
“And thanks to Sunich, I’ve realized two things,” Nicholas added.
“Oh? What are those?”
“Well, first of all that I’m a lot like you. I thought I was so different, but the differences were only partial. And secondly, I’ve learned that people don’t always mean harm by their unwise actions. What they see as love, others may see as hate or neglect, because they were never taught what real love is.”
The three men stood quietly for a while, then, as if entranced by a magical spell, three generations embraced.