Happy Just to Be
To Timmy for inspiring this story. Thank you for letting me learn about life with you! (And yes, you can be annoying like Jack sometimes, but I wouldn’t trade you for the world.)
I swung my 1972 Chevy Malibu into the gravel beside the road. I skidded to a stop at an awkward angle, but I didn’t really care. This would be a quick stop, and a quick turnaround. I’d be homeward bound in a few. I jammed the shifter into park and hopped out. I soaked in the warm late-evening rays and stretched, and my weary body cracked and popped several times as I straightened my long frame. It had been another long day installing drywall—It had been another long week installing drywall.
But now it was the weekend!
I had been heading to spend the evening at the bowling alley with my friends. Rock-n-bowl, Friday nights, where everything is bathed in blacklight and the balls and pins are luminous, speckled colors, where the crash of the pins is only matched by the almost deafening party music. The atmosphere there makes it easy to forget the worries and trials of young adulthood, at least for a couple of mind-numbing hours. I had been heading for that when I got the phone call. Mom and dad had decided to go on an impromptu date, and I was put on little brother duty.
I had tried for a moment to plead my way out of it. I hemmed and hawed, and when I finally resigned my plans for the evening, it was with a long-suffering sigh and a goodbye bordering on hostile. I know I sound selfish—and I guess I am. But I had worked hard all week; didn’t I deserve to spend my Friday evening how I wanted?
I consider my little brother Jack to be a certified pain. He is the literal definition of the baby of the family— the poster child of over-spoiled and annoying. What’s worse, I get the brunt of him. My older siblings, Glenn and Alexa, had long since acquired their wings and soared out of the nest, leaving me alone with my hatchling of a brother and his obnoxious, hungry chirpings. He is 12, 9 years younger than me. I suppose he’s not fresh out of the egg in that sense, but he’s still a content pubescent caught in the everyday pleasures of childhood. On my good days, I am decently amiable toward him, as long as he doesn’t intrude too much into my grown-up life. On my bad days, I would rather just ignore him, to put a force-field around my life’s sphere.
I think this might be one of my bad days.
That said, I had been put in charge of him for the evening, so I strode down the cracked sidewalk toward the Davis’s house in moody silence. Their small herd of kids are Jack’s best friends. Mom had let me know that this was where Jack had been spending his lazy summer afternoon, and shouts of joy and cheerful laughter directed me to the backyard, where I found him. He and four of the Davis’s were jumping on their trampoline. The youngest Davis boy—I never have learned any of their names—was hunched in the fetal position on the mat, knees clasped tightly to his chest, while the three other Davis kids and Jack jumped in a ring around him. From the looks of it, they were trying to bounce the young boy high enough to break him of his tight hold. It was a fun old game that I remembered playing such a seemingly long time ago.
The children were laughing and calling out jokes to one another, completely oblivious to my intrusion. I watched them from the other side of the fence that ringed the Davis’s back yard. Their cheeks were flushed and dimpled in excited smiles. Their hair was standing up every which way from all the bouncing and the static electricity from the trampoline, and the evening sun’s slanting rays shone brightly through it all, giving the impression that they each had a hazy, golden halo. It was almost comical, but at the same time it looked . . . serene. They didn’t feel a pressure to be orderly and properly austere. They were expressing their friendship with enthusiastic abandon, not caring to put up an adult facade.
I watched as the little boy in the center came down from a particularly high bounce and splatted like an egg on the stretchy canvas—limbs flailing, his hold finally broken. The little boy rolled onto his back and giggled ridiculously. The other kids whooped with victory. I almost laughed with them; I even thought of joining them. I imagined myself jumping high and launching all five of the little ones sky high. That would get them giggling, that’s for sure!
Then a volleyball-sized bouncy ball slammed into my forehead. My head jerked, and I went reeling backwards a step. The kids burst out laughing again, and Jack called out in a sing song voice, “Hey, Mike the man!”
I frowned, my moment of reverie instantly gone, as if the ball had bounced it right from my brain. “Time to go, squirt,” I grumbled.
The kids were immediately crest fallen, and Jack opened his mouth to protest. A severe look by me cut him down before he could give voice to it, though. I watched the kids climb down from the trampoline and plod over toward the gate. I was glad that my authority was going unchallenged, but at the same time . . . it felt kind of lame to be the bad guy. At least for the Davis kids. I didn’t care a ton that I was ruining Jack’s fun, because he had already ruined mine.
Jack was first to file out of the backyard gate and pressed past me. He picked up the bouncy ball he had playfully flung at me and lobbed it back over the fence. The oldest Davis girl, who was about Jack’s age, smiled at me as she tried to press back her frazzled auburn hair with the palms of her hands. She was small, even for a twelve-year old, which made her even more cute. I made a mental note to tease Jack about her later.
“Was it a long day at work?” she asked. The tone of her voice was more questioning then it needed to be for a simple conversation-making question, as if she really wanted to ask, “Why is Jack’s brother so grumpy?”
I shrugged. “Kind of normal.”
“Did you get to enjoy the sun?”
I laughed a little at this. “No, not really. I do drywall.” I left it at that, as if she should know that duh, all drywall is indoors.
I walked around to the front of the house with the band of halflings thronged around me. Jack broke from the group and away from the straight shot to my car.
“Where you going, Jack?”
“Gotta get my bike.”
Jack looked at me like I had the brain of a clownfish. “Yeah, how else do you think I got here?”
“How do you think we’re going to fit it in my car, genius?” I shot back.
“It’s a hatchback. It’ll fit.”
Of course it would. That was the one thing about my mid-range muscle car, my beautiful Chevy Malibu. I had dumped all my savings into the station wagon model my late uncle had owned. I had loved the extra space in the back end at first. It was practical and convenient, was my thought, and I was a practical and convenient guy who also liked fast cars. However, it’s ridiculously wide rear end had become the butt end of many jokes from my coworkers—and that pun was definitely not intended.
Jack fetched his beat up, Wal-Mart brand bike from where it had been dumped in the front yard. He wheeled it toward me as I flipped open the hatch. My tool bag was dumped back there, along with several empty Monster cans, a Frisbee, and an old college textbook. It wasn’t exactly clean, but I was still reluctant to cram a dirty bike back there. I grumbled under my breath as I took the bike from Jack and lifted it in. When it was all said and done, the front tire left a smear of dirt on the seatback, and I nearly wrenched the handle bars off as I twisted them at an awkward angle to make the bike fit. I slammed the hatch shut with an exasperated sigh.
Jack hugged his friends and said goodbye. I waved once to the kids out of a sense of obligation and hopped into the driver’s seat to check my notifications. Jack finally got in next to me, and I put my phone down and reached for the ignition. My engine roared to life, and I floored the gas for fun. I peeled out, and with a spray of gravel and a cloud’s worth of exhaust, we were off. The Davis kids laughed and clapped behind me. I smiled despite myself.
Neither of us spoke for a while.
“Fun day?” I asked when the silence became unbearable.
“Yeah, definitely!” Jack said with true enthusiasm. He didn’t reciprocate with a question of his own, so silence returned for a couple more awkward minutes. I decided to make use of that mental note to tease him.
“That Davis girl is cute.”
“Nicole?” Jack blushed a little even as he said it.
“Is that her name?” I asked. “Of the girl with the auburn hair, about your age but shorter?”
“Yeah, that’s Nicole.” Jack hesitated. “I like her. A lot.”
I glanced at him sharply. “You like her… like actually like like?”
Jack shrugged and stayed quiet.
I snorted and looked back out the windshield, straight ahead. “Aren’t you a little young. I mean, you’re twelve.”
“You mean you never had a crush on anyone when you were my age?” Jack retorted. He was being genuine, and there was this intense look on his face as if he was wondering if there was something wrong with him.
“No yeah—I mean yes, I guess I did,” I softened somewhat. “But of course, they never worked out or anything. You shouldn’t think about it too much.”
“Then why’d you bring it up?”
“I don’t know . . . I guess it was lame of me.” I paid a lot of attention to the stop sign I was rolling up to.
“I wish I was old like you,” Jack said wistfully. “Then it would work out.”
I laughed ruefully. “Being older doesn’t fix anything, kid. It doesn’t even work out when you are old enough for a relationship sometimes.”
“Like with Megan?”
“Yeah,” I said quietly. Megan had been my girlfriend for almost nine months before a painful breakup late in the spring. I had thought she would be the one. We had been a great couple, even. But now there was only that lingering, hollow ache that only the freshly single know so well. I tried to gulp down the lump in my throat and blinked rapidly at the late evening sunlight, as if it were the slanted rays that caused the tears in the corner of my eyes.
Jack watched me carefully. “I still wish I was older,” he said.
“What do you know? You should just be happy to be you!” I retorted, and I was surprised by the force of anger in my voice. “Being ‘grown-up’ isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” I almost added more. I almost unloaded on him all my secret thoughts about how I wished I could be his age again, how I wished I could be free of the many pressures and hurts of my newfound adult life. But I managed to bite my tongue and turn my angry thoughts inward. It wouldn’t do to crush all of Jack’s wistful idealism about being “old”, a darkly sarcastic part of me reasoned.
It was almost tragically ironic. Here we were, two brothers, both with idealisms and dreams. The only difference was one of us wished for the future while the other longed for the past.
We rolled through our small town. Well, comparatively small. It had more than just the standard post office, hardware store, grocery store, and gas station. We had a small strip mall that fostered a revolving door of failed startup businesses, a couple of banks, a movie theater, several restaurants of both the mom and pop and chain variety, the bowling alley, Wal-Mart, and several other stores. It took about 5 minutes to get from the Davis’s side of town to the north to ours on the south.
Even though I rolled through it almost without thought, our town was nice. The filtered rays of the golden sunset bathed it in a comfortable glow, and friendly town folk waved occasionally from the sidewalk or from the front porches of the houses interspaced between the businesses. I had often had big dreams of leaving this town as soon as possible when I was younger, but those big dreams had slowly but surely been corroded by this—this small-town charm I rolled through every evening.
Jack grew especially quiet when we approached our one ice cream shop in town, a Baskin Robbins. An intensely thoughtful look worked itself onto his face. I could see the gears turning in his mind. He was wondering if there was any conceivable chance his big brother would have a drastic swing in mood and buy him an ice cream.
“What?” Jack asked
“Oh nothing,” I said, and there was a pause.
“Sure was a hot day,” Jack offered a moment later.
“Yeah, almost hot enough to make me want an ice cream cone.”
“Yeah?" Jack perked up hopefully.
“Almost,” I repeated.
Jack hung his shoulders. He looked kind of like a birthday balloon that had lost its helium. He couldn’t see that his little scheme hadn’t completely failed, because he couldn’t see my thoughts. It had been a hot day, and it was the weekend. Plus, the money I had planned to spend for bowling would more than cover a triple-scoop waffle cone. On a sudden whim I jammed the brakes and turned into Baskin Robbin’s parking lot. Spontaneity—Maybe that’s something adulthood had taken from me. And maybe that was a good thing. But maybe, just maybe, it was okay to enjoy life a little sometimes.
Jack looked at me, his eyes as big as baseballs, and all but squealed with surprise and ecstasy. “Oh yeah, ice cream! Thanks, Mike!”
Where I might have had a warm feeling of good will, a twinge of indignation gripped me instead. I had this urge to teach Jack a lesson on responsibility and its correlation to privileges. What right did he have to just assume I’d buy him ice cream? I brooded on that thought for a bit.
“Have you ever heard the expression, ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch?’” I asked as I held the door to Baskin Robbins open for him.
Jack slowly pulled himself out of ice cream euphoria and blinked up at me. “No . . .” he said dubiously.
“It means that we have to buy what we want, or else if something is free, it’s only because the person who gave it to us expects something from us. Like taxes. Or our dependence and eventual slave labor.”
The politics of it clearly flew over Jack’s head. “What does that have to do with ice cream?” he asked.
“It means I’m buying mine, and you’re old enough to start paying for your own.”
Jack protested. I pointed out that he had money from mowing Mrs. Carrol’s lawn across the street.
“Yeah for like $5 a mow,” Jack countered. “You make way more money!”
“Since when did you become a communist?” I retorted. “And anyway, last I checked, five bucks can buy you plenty of ice cream.”
“And when did you become a stingy old miser,” I heard Jack say under his breath as he turned away to exam the closest fridge of ice cream flavors.
“Welcome to Baskin Robbins!” a ditsy teenager said from behind the counter. “What can I get started for you?”
I acknowledged her with a nod. I tried a few samples like I always did before going with my tried and true favorites: strawberry, sea salt caramel, and chocolate. All the while I stewed over Jack’s last comment. He didn’t understand the adult world of money! He didn’t understand how hard we worked for it and how important it was to save and not just spend frivolously!
“Believe me, man,” I added as almost an afterthought as I watched Jack struggle to pick what flavors he wanted. “I wish I could be like you again and spend my money as quickly as I earned it. But adults have responsibilities.”
Jack shrugged by way of giving me the cold shoulder and didn’t even respond. He was taking forever to order his ice cream. Finally, he settled on two flavors.
“Gross, dude, seriously? Of all the 31 flavors, you chose sherbet and cotton candy?” I said.
“Are you guys paying together or separately?” Ditsy Girl said from behind the cash register. She looked at me expectantly.
I looked her squarely in the eye and said, “Separately.”
“Oh.” Her tone was somewhere between shocked and condescending. I looked down at the register. The display read $9.43. She began to mess with the keyboard, trying to cancel the order and re-enter each ice cream separately.
I guess she was probably a communist too.
Meanwhile, Jack dug into the pockets of his cargo shorts. He produced two crumpled dollar bills and started counting out nickels and dimes. And a few pennies. I sighed and decided to drop the morality lesson.
“Forget about it,” I said. “I got both of them.” I handed the girl my debit card. Jack returned his dollars and coins to his pocket with a relieved look on his face.
Back in my Malibu, the only sound was the smacking of our lips as we enjoyed the ice cream. I slowly eased back onto the road, driving one handed. As far as I knew, driving and eating ice cream wasn’t illegal yet. I kept glancing over at Jack . . . at the pleasure in his dirty, sweat-stained face that was soon to be joined by sticky sherbet smears. The way his lips were puckered from the cold of his ice cream. The way his chubby cheeks were drawn back and dimpled as he ate the top off his ice cream cone. The slurping and smacking noises he made as he sucked the sweet cream down his throat.
I was waiting for some kind of acknowledgment, some kind of thank you. Deep down I knew I didn’t really deserve a thank you. I had been a pill all evening, and I started to think this chip on my shoulder was more like an anchor dragging me down. A part of me started to wish I could just reboot the evening.
But it still would have been nice for him to say it.
As if he knew I was expecting something, Jack turned to me and said, “I’ll start earning more money soon.”
I shrugged, caught off guard. His words slipped under the armor of manufactured grudges I had been holding against him, but they didn’t really hit a soft spot. “Yeah, it’s nice to have,” was all I managed.
“It’s not everything, though,” Jack confided.
“It’s what we need to live.”
Jack nodded. “But I’d rather live for other things.”
I was about to correct Jack that I had not meant that I lived for money, but the air I sucked into my lungs to protest never turned to words. I licked my ice cream thoughtfully instead. Maybe, in this season where money meant the difference between a boy and a man—where all I needed was money to pursue my dreams—maybe it had become what I lived for. What else had more control of me? God? I rarely found time to open His Word between Sundays. My parents? Their authoritative role had diminished ever since I had gotten a car and a boss, though they still let me live in their house for rent. Maybe Megan a few months ago, but not anymore. Was I a slave to earning and saving? I looked at Jack again, not with a grudge, but with . . . something close to envy.
“Maybe money isn’t so freeing after all,” I mumbled.
Jack shrugged. “Yeah, I guess . . .” He was thinking too, but his crinkled forehead and the thoughtful look in his eyes passed quickly like a cloud on a summer day. “It bought ice cream, though.”
I smiled a little bit. “Close enough to happiness, right?”
The joke slowly dawned on Jack, and he burst out laughing.
“What?” I said. “It’s not that funny.”
And I was right. The joke wasn’t really that funny, but Jack was still laughing. I felt like I was on the other side of a fence again, watching a world I had grown too old for but somehow still wanted. Maybe I could join it, just for a moment.
“You’re going to snort ice cream up your nose,” I said, and I grinned impulsively.
Jack laughed even harder and snorted in-between breaths. “Ow, ow, you’re right!” he gasped between breaths.
Now I laughed. He looked so comical, his face contorted in a laugh and grimace at the same time. And the thing was, with each laugh I felt the chip on my shoulder growing lighter, as if it was being shaken off. And it actually felt good—like I could just be free.
A sudden thought struck me as I laughed: maybe the way to enter that old world on the other side of the fence was to let Jack into mine. I had bought hook, line and sinker the culture’s idea that little siblings were nuisances to be avoided at all costs . . . but perhaps that was all wrong. I thought of a verse from the Bible just then, something Jesus had said: “Let the little children come to me.” Maybe the example of the wisest man on earth was worth following.
Our ice cream was consumed, but we were still snickering when I turned into our gravel drive. It was a long driveway, about a mile long, but I actually felt a twinge of regret that we only had a mile of our drive left. So much for bowling. This was starting to feel like it could be more fun somehow. More real. I stopped the car abruptly and turned to Jack.
“Hey, you wanna drive?”
Jack’s eyes turned to baseballs again. “Seriously?”
“Yeah, sure. Don’t you want to?”
Jack nodded excitedly. “Like, on your lap, or trade places?”
I slid my chair back all it could go, which was about two notches further then I already had it set for my long legs. “Lap,” I said. “For your first time, anyway.”
Jack clambered over onto my lap awkwardly. His face pressed into my shoulder for a solid 15 seconds as he tried to get his feet under the dash and near the pedals. I laughed again, not caring that he was getting sweat-caked dirt and leftover sherbet on my t-shirt. It was a work shirt anyway. Finally Jack got himself situated. His tummy was an inch or less from the wheel, and the back of his head stuck in my face. I craned my neck to get a view out the windshield and said, “Okay, let’s do this.”
Jack took a deep breath as he put the car in drive. A sort of gravity fell over him. Risk and reward, I realized. Responsibility. He eased onto the gas and started puttering down the road at about 7 miles an hour.
“Come on, bro, let’s hit it!” I knocked his foot off the gas with my own and stomped on the pedal.
We spun out and swerved precariously, and Jack squealed with ecstasy and terror. I added a holler of my own as Jack got us straightened out, and we flew down the road. The sun was down, and the first few stars appearing in the dusky sky winked at us as we sped below. The neighbors to our left had horses fenced next to the road, and the startled beasts took to flight and ran along the fence line ahead of us. I rolled down the window and whooped at them as we caught up and passed them. Jack added a whoop of his own.
“This is amazing!” he shouted, giving each word emphasis.
“Yeah buddy!” I yelled back.
And in that one moment, that one glorious moment, our worlds collided and shattered in a kaleidoscope of shared emotions. I forgot about whatever season of life it was I was supposed to be living in—or rather, I lost all feelings of disappointment and longing to be someone I could not be. In that second with Jack, I breathed deeply and added one last joyful yell.
And I was happy just to be.