Lightning in a Jar

A Summer Sonata

Chapter 1

 

“Turn that off, please!” 

Mom’s tone of voice dripped with acid.  OK, I knew I’d been asking for it.  But after listening to a beginning violin student’s scratchy, off-tune cacophony—so reminiscent of caterwauling by a wounded feline—and hearing a young girl hacking away sourly for over an hour, you do come to the end of your rope.  I’d come to mine.  Even though I’d worked hard to teach myself patience and serenity, there was something still there, deep down in my inner being, that could only take so much. 

The strident dissonance of horsehair on catgut by a tone-deaf preteen with an unlimited lack of skill had finally reached down to stir that spot in me where my anger was stored.  I didn’t think I was wrong to feel that way; I felt anyone listening to those unending scratchings who didn’t get provoked wouldn’t be normal.  So I’d turned up the volume on the radio—way, way up—and my Beyoncé was drowning out her Bach.  Quite obviously drowning it out if my mom was hearing it through the soundproofed door of her teaching studio.

I glared back at her, but a 50-year-old woman has much more experience glaring than does her 20-year-old son—over twice as much, in fact—and she was much better at it than I was.  The Goliath of the glare.  She had a lot of experience with putting guys in their place, too.  I sighed and turned down the radio.  She pointed at the headset on my computer desk; she was anything but stupid; she knew I’d been making a statement.  I could have put the headset on and not had to listen to the screeching annoyance coming from the studio.  Turning up the radio was a sort of rebellion.  And she wasn’t standing for it.

So I put the headset on, re-fluffed the couch cushion behind my neck and picked up my book from my chest.  No need for a confrontation.  None at all.

 

§   §   §   §

 

“David, you’ve got to get a job.”

“I’m still decompressing.”

“You’ve been decompressing for a month.  If all the hot air hasn’t leaked out of you by now, it never will.  If you need more time, I’ll find you a shrink.  Shrinking and decompressing are about the same, aren’t they?”

One thing about my mom: she had a wicked sense of humor and loose reins when it came to controlling it.  And when it came to me, not a lot of sensitivity.  That was good; I probably needed a push.  She certainly thought so.  But being delicate or sensitive around me?  It had never happened.  I may have needed that attitude behind me when growing up; well, I probably still needed it today.

I grinned at her and held my fork suspended, pausing in filling my mouth to say, “So what should I look for?  I’m not qualified for anything.”

She put her coffee cup back in its saucer, swallowed, and responded.  “I could ask whose fault that is, but it wouldn’t get us anywhere, so I’ll leave that alone.  I’ll have the good grace to ignore it and move forward.  Whatever you look for, it has to be temporary—just for the summer.  You start school in a couple of months, and mister, you will do that.  But lying around the house till then is over and done with.  Even if you only spend the time job-hunting, that’ll get you out of the house and be good for you.  All those rejections you’ll get . . . I can see you coming home for dinner every night, your tail dragging.  Yep.  Good for you.  Really good.  Just the ticket.”

The ticket to what?  It was sometimes hard to believe she had my best interests at heart.  She did, though.  She was my fiercest defender.  When I needed defending.  And she knew me well enough to know when to push and when to back off.  She was much more of a go-getter than I was, and it was for my benefit when she put her shoulder into the small of my back and heaved.  Generally.  I can’t say I always appreciated it at the time.  In fact, I rarely had.  When I was down for some reason—and I’d had plenty of those times growing up—being pushed back into the fray had often been very hard.  But she’d been right all those times.  I had a tendency, when younger, to want to mope and wallow in my own misery. 

She hated wallowing.  When I did, she invariably acted like, well, like she was acting right now. 

Was that what I’d been doing?  Wallowing?

Well, maybe.

We finished dinner silently.  I needed to think.  She needed to figure out a job for me.  One-track mind?  Her?  Often.  She saw a problem and fixed it.  That was one reason she was so successful.

She was a violinist.  A very good one.  She’d played in some top orchestras and then done some studio work for films, too.  Those gigs had earned her some very good paychecks, much of which she’d banked—even the residuals that serendipitously would occasionally arrive.  Then she’d decided she wanted some stability—probably the fact I’d happened had a role in that thinking, somehow—and she found a university teaching job that also paid well, and she combined that with a home teaching studio where she took in students at all levels.

Her past students included several soloists who’d gone on to perform with major orchestras.  Hers was a name that was known in the profession.  Students came to the University of Michigan because she was there.

The beginners I’d had to put up with earlier that day were generally from elementary and middle schools, recommended by their teachers because they saw something in them.  Her students paid what their parents could afford.  If it was nothing, that’s what they paid.  But some of her students either had parents who could afford her rates, or, with the older ones, they themselves could.  She charged her top students $150 an hour, the ones she felt had the talent to go forward professionally.  She limited the number of private students she worked with to allow herself time beyond her private teaching responsibilities for ensemble work.  She had a string quartet composed of other faculty members and did a lot of recording and performing.  The Harrington String Quartet had established a prestigious name for itself in the music world.

The stability she’d wanted when I was younger wasn’t so necessary now.  But she made very good money, and now that I was back home, I was enjoying the very comfortable lifestyle she had wrought for herself.

My dad was long gone.  He was one of the problems she’d fixed.  He’d left when I was only four; I had no recollection at all of him.  She said that was one of the reasons she’d kicked him out.  He had sucked at being a dad, and so he was gone.  She’d been the only parent I’d known.  And she’d been very, very good at squaring away a boy who tended so often to simply drift.  Even if she did piss me off a lot.  I guess she figured that was just a fringe benefit.

 

§   §   §   §

 

I spent much of the next day at the park.  Okay, okay, so I’m not terribly motivated.  I was decompressing, and I would be going to college in a couple of months, and we didn’t really need the money, so why go through trying to find a job for such a short period of time?  Whatever I found, if I did find something, I’d most likely still be training by the time I had to quit.  No, I couldn’t see it.  No point at all in looking. 

I figured it would be easy enough to come home each evening looking unhappy.  That should be enough for her.

And it wouldn’t be every afternoon I’d have to come home dragging.  She rehearsed with her quartet quite often these days because they were part of a Carnegie Hall chamber-music gig that was coming up soon.  No need to pretend to be job hunting on those days; she’d be in very late.

When she was out during the day but would be home early enough to eat, she expected me to start dinner.  This was one such day.  I stayed in the park till she left for her practice just after noon.  Then I came back, watched some TV, shot some stick in our billiard room, and then put a pot roast on to cook.  Few things are easier to cook than a pot roast.  In case you don’t know how, you throw the thing in a plastic grocery bag, dump in two or three heaping tablespoons of flour, twist the top so you don’t have a huge mess to clean up, then shake it around a bit while you’re heating some oil in a large skillet to medium-high heat.  When the meat is entirely covered in flour, you set it rather carefully in the pan, cook it on each side long enough to brown it, then add some water—very carefully so nothing explodes—put a package of dry, onion-soup mix on top, cover the skillet, turn the heat down to low, and that’s it!  Really. Cook it for a couple, three hours and it’s done.  If you’re fussy, like my mom, then at some point you should add some cut up peeled potatoes and carrots and such.  I’d be satisfied with just the meat.

The gravy’s simple enough, too, but this isn’t about cooking.

So we sat down to dinner, and she asked.  “David, did you find a job?”

I shook my head.  “Not yet, but it’s only been a few days.  I’ll find something.”

“Where did you look?”

“Oh, you know.  Around.  A few fast-food places.  A couple of restaurants, seeing if they needed waiters or kitchen help.  Even a clothing store, but they only wanted experienced sales staff.  I figured this would be hard, but I’m still going to keep on looking.”

Mom was staring at me, rather too critically, I thought.  But then, slowly, she smiled.  “Bullshit,” she said.  Then she laughed.

Sometimes it’s easy not to like her too much.

“What’s so funny?” I asked, trying to keep the resentment out of my voice.  I did have to live with her for a few more years yet, and she was paying my way through college.  Even if I wasn’t all that high on going and she got the employee discount.

She finally stopped laughing.  “Sorry,” she said, not sounding a bit apologetic.  “I just know you quite well.  That’s all.  I was pretty sure you wouldn’t find anything.  I was pretty sure you wouldn’t even look.  But you did make a nice pot roast.”

She began laughing again.  I cut another slice of beef.  It was good.  Maybe I should consider being a chef.  Was there any call for ones who only knew how to do a pot roast?

When she was done chuckling, she said, “I guessed right.  I also guessed this might be the case for the next month, so I found you a job myself.”

“What?!”

“A perfect job for you.  It has some responsibility attached to it, and it’s not the kind of responsibility you can ignore or palm off on anyone else.  It’s a job you need to extend yourself doing.  It’ll be good for you; you’ll learn a lot, especially about yourself.  And as you say, I know you.  You’ll balk and fuss, and then you’ll put your heart into it, and by the time fall arrives and school starts, you’ll think it was the best thing you ever did.”

I was shaking my head all the time she was expounding while looking oh-so-smug and self-satisfied.  “So what’s the job?” I asked, pretty sure I could find a way either to turn it down or to get myself fired in the first few days.  Her idea of a good job for me, one with responsibilities I could handle, would be riding on the aft end of a garbage truck, helping a large, sweaty guy named Turk throw trash into the back.

“You’ll find out tomorrow.  You have a meeting at eight in the morning.  Wear casual clothes.  Don’t be late.  Employers hate your being late, especially on the first day.  And David, if you come home saying you turned it down or he didn’t accept you, you’ll find your things out on the front porch.  Where you’ll be living till school starts, I have no idea, but it won’t be here!”   

The problem was, she did know me.

 

§   §   §   §

 

I found the address she’d given me easily enough.  It was an office building in a good section of town.  Not that Ann Arbor had many bad ones.  The brass plate fixed to the wall next to the door read Fletcher & Sons.  That was it.  Nothing about if it was a law firm or architects or a debt-collection organization or a mob front.  Just Fletcher & Sons.  Not even how many sons there were.  I opened the door and went in.  A receptionist sat at a desk in a space about the size of a college dorm room.  There were three not terribly comfortable-looking chairs against a wall with no one sitting in them.  There was a hallway leading away from where she was sitting.  There were no windows, but the lighting was soft and adequate, the room was carpeted in a soft, medium- brown plush, and the walls were painted a soft beige.  The atmosphere was welcoming. 

I walked over to her desk, and she smiled at me.  I guessed she was in her forties; she looked very competent.  “Yes?” she said, like whatever it was I wanted, she’d be able to handle it and would enjoy doing so.

“I was told to be here by eight o’clock this morning.”  I glanced at the clock on the wall.  Five minutes to.  Right on time.  “That was all I was told.  I don’t even know who to ask for.”

She never dropped her eyes from mine, and asked, “Are you David Harrington?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Then you’re just who he’s waiting for.  You’re here for the last opening he has, and yes, you’re on time!  Good for you.”  She seemed very pleased by my small success.  “Good start,” she continued.  “Just go down the corridor; it’s the second door on the right.”

Well, that certainly didn’t tell me much.  I was in a sort of pissy mood.  My mom had just grinned at me—she would have said ‘smiled enigmatically’—every time I’d tried to pry more information out of her, and she’d never revealed what the job involved or anything else about it.  What that told me was it had to be awful and that if I knew in advance, I’d dig my heels in, even if she did kick me out.  But, not knowing anything for sure, I’d had to show up.  Damn her and her clever ways!

So I walked down the corridor.  The first door was standing open, and I could see a small group of guys in that room.  From a quick glance they appeared to be young adults mostly about my age, a couple maybe a bit younger, none much older.  They were sitting on chairs set in a semi-circle.  A man was standing in front of them speaking to the group.

I kept going and came to the second door, also standing open.  It was a room about the same size as the first one I’d passed.  This was an office from the looks of it because there was a desk on one side, a conference table on the other and a couch and a couple of chairs along one of the walls.  A man was sitting behind the desk.  He was looking at his watch.  I was sure it wasn’t quite eight yet.  I hadn’t lingered with the receptionist.

I rapped on the door frame and stepped into the room; the man looked up.

“Ah,” he said, smiling, “you must be David.  Right on time.  I’m a son.”

Huh?  “You’re a son?  Oh, wait, I get it.  Fletcher & Sons.”

“Reginald.  There are three of us, but I’m the only one you’ll meet.  The others are off earning lots and lots of money.  One’s in Europe right now, the other in Brazil.  So you don’t have to worry about them.  Only about me.  I’m the youngest, and I’m your new boss.”

There was something about this guy that was very strange.  He looked to be in his mid-thirties, maybe even forty, but he could easily be in his twenties from everything I could see.  He was sitting in an office and had a desk, but he was dressed no better than I was, and when Mom had said casual, I’d taken her at her word.  I was wearing an old, comfortable pair of jeans, well-broken-in jeans, and a tee shirt.  Sneakers.  That was it.  But so was he.  He’d stood up by now, offering to shake hands; I could see his jeans were no younger than mine.  And his untucked tee shirt was just as indifferent as mine, too.  His face was smooth and unlined, and I wondered if he even shaved.  His hair was longer than what a businessman would have, and it was messy.

The desk was bare, too.  I knew some executives liked the empty-desk look, but somehow his gave me the impression it was always like that. 

His manner of speaking was as informal as his dress.  He couldn’t really be running the American side of this business, could he?  Dressed like this?  Speaking so blithely?  I was reminded of how capable the receptionist had looked.

I stepped forward and went to shake hands and saw he’d changed his to a fist.  It only took me a second to realize he wanted a bump.  I gave it to him, he motioned towards where there were a few chairs and a small couch, and we both walked over and sat down.  His stride was more of a saunter than a purposeful march; actually, it was much like mine.  Strange.

“So, you all filled in?  Any questions?”  He had taken the couch and was sort of sprawled on it.  I was in a chair.  He was looking at me with sparkling eyes, eager for me to ask anything I had any uncertainty about, like filling me in would make his day.

My feeling of unreality grew.

“Uh,” I said.  Not a propitious start.  I cleared my throat and started again.  “I have a lot of questions.  I don’t even know why I’m here.  Maybe you could sort of fill me in on the job I seem to have acquired without even asking for it?”

As I’d said, I’d been in a pissy mood; now I was curious.  But the pissiness still showed in my tone of voice and the rudeness of the question.  I really didn’t mean to sound almost hostile, but I probably did.

He noticed and sat up a little straighter, and his focus on me sharpened a bit.  I realized that while his air was very laid back, very casual, his eyes showed an inner intelligence.  He sat looking at me, appearing to weigh my presence while thinking, but it was only briefly, and then he suddenly smiled again.  “I guess maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.”   Then he chuckled.

This certainly wasn’t at all enlightening.  As the risk of sounding even ruder, I asked, “Surprised at what?”

He shook his head, but his posture relaxed a bit.  Then he grinned.  “Your mom.  She didn’t tell you anything, did she?  Just like her.”

“You know Mom?”

“Sure do.  Took lessons from her years ago.  I even met you, but I’m sure you don’t remember.  You’d have been about five.  She had students coming through your house all the time.  I was just another one.  She called me Reggie.  You can, too.”

“You play violin?”  I don’t know why I asked that.  It had nothing to do with anything.  But I was curious about his relationship with Mom.

“I did.  She wanted me to continue with it.  Said I had talent and if I worked really hard, I could make something of it.  It was that working really hard bit that got me.  I’m kind of easygoing.  Maybe you’ve noticed?”  He laughed again.

I couldn’t help myself.  This guy exuded charisma and charm and was entirely unselfconscious.  I laughed as well and found myself blurting out, “Yeah, I noticed.  And about Mom?  Me, too.”

He might have been informal, might have acted younger than his years, but mentally he was no slouch.  He caught my meaning almost immediately.  “She wanted you to push yourself, too?  On violin?”

“Yeah.  I got tired of it.  I quit when I was 18.  Man, that was something to remember.  She was not happy.”

“I can well imagine.  You weren’t any braver than I was.  I didn’t have the nerve to walk away till I was a senior in high school, either.  Then I told her I wanted to get into a good college and to do that I needed the time I was spending on the violin to study.  She tried her best to get me to change my mind, telling me how she’d get me enrolled in the music program at U of M and where that could lead, but I already knew those hours and hours of practice weren’t for me.  I knew a BA in business would be much easier, I’d enjoy college a whole lot more, and I had a future here.”  He made an arm gesture that encompassed the room and probably meant the building as well and even the entire company.  “Fletcher & Sons would pay more than I’d make as a musician unless I became a world-class soloist, and I knew I didn’t have either the motivation or the discipline for that.”

He’d been slouching again and now sat up straight, signaling that this part of our discussion was over.  “Probably a funny way to start a job interview, telling you I was too lazy to pursue that career, but I know you’ve already seen I’m not your typical suit.  I’d abhor pushing paper all day long and working long hours chasing the almighty dollar.  What you’re seeing is who I am.  I make no effort to hide it.  My brothers are disgusted with me.  They were going to get rid of me, but my father still runs the place, at least officially.  They do all the real work, but he still owns the business.  And he likes me.”

He stopped to grin again.  I didn’t see how anyone could turn down that grin.  There was no doubt about it: the man had charm.

“He figured out a way to use me in the business, and everyone would be happy.  So they run the real business, and I run the ancillary business.  That’s the part you’ll be in.  If you take the job.  Let me guess: your mom told you you had to?  She told me you’d already agreed to it.  And I’ll bet you have no idea what I’m talking about.”

I smiled.  He was easy to talk to, and I had the idea being involved with whatever it was he did wouldn’t be all that bad.  He was looking for a response, and so I shook my head.  “No idea at all.”

“OK.  What I am is the guy in charge of the company’s activities that give the company a good face for the public and a write-off for the company.  Both have value, and my brothers can shove it if they object.  Actually, they don’t.  My doing this means they don’t have to be bothered with it, and that suits them fine.  They really like making money.”

“So you do charity work?” I asked.  This was getting to be a monolog.  I thought I should look at least a little engaged.

“That’s part of it, finding worthwhile places to donate.  But there’s more.  And what I’ll be spending the bulk of my time on this summer is what I’d like you to join me doing.”

“Why me?  You don’t know me at all.”

“That’s right, but then, there’s your mom . . . ” 

I laughed this time.  “Oh, yeah, I’d forgotten about that.”

“She came and talked to me yesterday.  She keeps track of students she liked, and even though I quit on her, we haven’t lost touch.  I work with her.  I fund some of her financially strapped students.  So we still talk some, and she came to me to see if I had some sort of job that you could do this summer.  And, it turns out that I do.”

“And?”  Maybe I was finally going to learn what the job was.

“Well, one of the things I’m most concerned with is kids.  There are all kinds of organizations for kids, but I wanted to help kids that are underserved.  My idea was to have a summer camp for these kids.  I started one.  This will be its third year of operation.  It’s grown every year and been very successful.  What I want you to do is help me by becoming a camp counselor.  It’s a job, and a tough one in some ways.  You’re responsible for a group of kids 24 hours a day.  But that’s balanced by the fact the kids are having fun for 16 of those and sleeping of the other 8.  And while they’re having fun, you’re having fun with them.  That doesn’t sound all that bad, does it?”

I frowned.  “I don’t know anything about supervising a bunch of kids.  Will it be boys?  How old are they?”  I was sounding defensive, probably more than necessary because I was not hating the idea.  I couldn’t help but think this was a little better than throwing garbage into a truck all day and making awkward friends with Turk.

“Yes, it’s boys, and they’re mostly 11 and 12.  A few are 13.”

“How many would I be in charge of?”

“That depends.  Experienced counselors have up to ten, perhaps more if we’re short a man.  But for a first year counselor, we cut it way back.  Probably five or six.  It would depend.  We try to match the boys with the personality and interests of the counselor.  Works better that way.  But, overall, what do you think?  We don’t want someone who’d hate the job.  Who doesn’t like kids.  Wouldn’t be fair to the boys.”

“I don’t know,” I said.  I’d never considered anything like this.  But I didn’t mind boys, at least the type that came for lessons from Mom.  They were all polite and soft-spoken and seemed okay.  I didn’t think I’d like rowdy ones.  I’d never been a rowdy boy myself.  Then I thought to ask, “I’d be with them day and night?  Sleep and eat with them.  All that?”

“Yes, we have cabins, and you’d be in there with them.  If you needed more privacy than that, we’d screen off a corner of the cabin for you.  We prefer not to, though, but that wouldn't be a deal breaker.  We want the counselors to be happy, too.”

“You said you have experienced counselors.  How many are there altogether, and how many would be brand new, like me?”

“We started two years ago with only three cabins.  Three counselors.  This year we’ll be up to eight cabins.  None of the first counselors are back.  They all got jobs, real jobs, not summer jobs.  But we have five counselors who were with us last year, and there’ll be three new ones.  I’m hoping you’ll be one of those.”

“Well . . . maybe.  It doesn’t sound too bad.”

“Camp starts next week and runs for two months.  Some kids stay the full time, others leave early and are replaced with new kids.  The counselors sign up for the entire summer.  So, I need your answer right away.  I have one opening left, and then we need to do some training.  Nothing too rigorous, nothing you won’t absorb quite readily.  But the time is such that I need an answer right away if you’ll be joining us.  Today, in fact.”  He smiled, and then added the kicker. “And don’t forget your mom.”

“Okay, okay, I’ll decide today and get back to you.  If for no other reason, I’ll probably accept because if I go home and say I turned it down, I’ll have to find a place to spend the summer, and a camp doesn’t sound half bad.  As long as you give me good kids.”

“I can do that.  I do have to tell you one thing, though.  Shouldn’t make any difference, but in the interests of transparency . . . ” 

He lost a little of his smile and looked down a moment.  Then back up and said, “I told you I set up things for kids that need things not normally available to them.  That’s what this camp is for.  These kids need this.  They’ve been picked especially for this camp.”

“Why?” I asked.  “What’s wrong with them?”

“Nothing.  Nothing at all.  They’re simply all gay.  It’s a camp for gay boys.  You’re OK with that, aren’t you?  You’re not prejudiced, are you?”

 

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