TUESDAY: Second Chance

BY BEVERLEY BACHMANN

Copyright is held by the author.

MICHAEL FOCUSED his attention on the small metal object he was clutching in his right hand. He told himself it was nothing but a cordless phone, still he wondered if he shouldn’t hurl the thing across the room and watch it smash to smithereens against the far wall. That might be fun.

On the other hand, some part of him tried to access that source of reason and logic that had seen him through eight years of university. Hanging up a phone could hardly qualify as a monumental achievement.

Decisions. His world was full of them.

A few minutes earlier he had been sitting up in bed cramming for the upcoming bar exam, his notebook computer on his lap, his wife Marcia by his side.

Then the phone rang. Reluctantly Michael picked it up.

After what seemed like hours, the call was completed. That was when Michael started staring stupidly at an inanimate object. He managed to get a grip and replace the phone on the night stand by his side of the bed. Then he put away his computer as well. Concentration was a thing of the past.

Too agitated to keep still, he donned slippers and began pacing the narrow confines of the bedroom floor. Marcia watched him out of the corner of her eye but kept reading her novel. Michael would talk when he was ready.

“That bastard! That damn, damn bastard!”

“Gordon?” she asked, keeping her voice level.

“Who else?” Michael spit the words out bitterly. “Just another one of his crummy guilt trips!” Michael stopped pacing for a moment and stood at the foot of the bed, facing his wife.

“Can you believe it? He wants me to forget about the bar exam, put my future on hold, and fly to Vancouver on the next plane. He even had the nerve to say, and I quote, ‘Mom would be so hurt if you didn’t come home for Dad’s retirement party.’”

Marcia carefully inserted a book marker in her novel and composed herself to listen. She had a pretty good idea of what was coming. In the three plus years she had been married to Michael, she had heard many stories about her husband’s family. She even met them once, when they flew out to Toronto for the wedding. She had been impressed. Michael’s parents were great — warm, friendly, affectionate. And they loved her too.

“Regrettably,” Gordon couldn’t make it, but he did send the newlyweds a card of well wishes. When Michael heard the news that his only brother was going to miss his wedding, he had one response. Unqualified relief. That was Marcia’s clue that whatever was going on between these two grown men, it was no ordinary sibling rivalry.

Michael’s birth had been something of an upset — showing up as he did 14 years after Gordon’s arrival. His parents had resigned themselves to having an only child, but then, miraculously, Michael appeared on the scene. The child’s unexpected entrance into their lives was an answer to a prayer, and they were delighted. Michael was their “second chance.”

Throughout his childhood, Michael’s parents lavished love on the little boy who never let them down — not at home, and not at school. When it came time for Michael to graduate, they made sure he had the means to continue his education at U.B.C. When he told them he wanted to study law in Toronto at Osgoode Hall, they didn’t balk. Whatever Michael wanted, his parents were ready to supply. They were happy to do it. A second chance doesn’t come along every day.

Gordon’s mindset about Michael’s existence, however, was another story. He saw the little boy as the one who got all the breaks — the one who was privileged. It galled him to stand by and watch while his parents doted on the child, but what Gordon really resented was the thousands of dollars they poured into Michael’s education, thereby guaranteeing him a ticket to life on easy street while he, Gordon, never even got a foothold on the ladder of success.

When Gordon was young, he was a rough and tumble kid, always looking for a fight. He was big for his age and he like to throw his weight around, especially on the school playground. When his parents asked him why he behaved like a bully, he said it made him “feel good.”

More than once Gordon’s parents were driven to the point of despair by having to deal with their difficult child. They tried every form of discipline they could think of, but it only hardened the boy’s resolve to rebel. He proved it in grade eight when he was suspended from school over an incident where he had been caught, literally, with his pants down.

Apparently he had enticed a girl into a lavatory cubicle where the two of them did god-knows-what until a hall monitor heard suspicious sounds coming from the boys’ washroom. A teacher was summoned, and soon thereafter Gordon and the young lady in question found themselves sitting in front of an irate vice-principal. When confronted about the episode, Gordon merely shrugged while the girl giggled nervously. When coaxed to confess what exactly they were doing in the washroom, she said it was “all Gordon’s idea,” although she “really didn’t mind.” Her parents, on the other hand, did.

This occasion was serious enough to involve the authorities, and it looked like Gordon would have to pay the piper, but out of a sense of remorse or responsibility — or whatever it is that parents feel when their kid becomes a source of social embarrassment — they stepped into rectify the situation. They met with all the parties involved and hammered out a “deal.” After that, Gordon was off the hook.

When the boy was 15, he entered high school. It looked like Gordon was about to start over with a clean slate, but then he decided that school was “boring” and began skipping classes — a lot. His parents insisted he stick with it until he got his diploma, and, for a time, he did make an effort. But then, somewhere around his 16th birthday, he got his girlfriend pregnant. He saw it as an opportunity. Ignoring his parents’ pleas to “think it through,” he packed a bag, opted for a shot-gun marriage, and dropped out of school for good.

The next 25 years saw Gordon drifting from one dead end job to another. For awhile he and his wife lived hand to mouth, but then the cheques started arriving from his folks, motivated by their concern for the grandchildren.

Michael knew all about Gordon’s troubled past, and he often felt badly for the guy, but what could he do? He wasn’t responsible for the way his brother’s life turned out. That was Gordon’s choice, and yet the man never stopped resenting Michael for it.

“You sure you don’t want to fly out West — maybe study on the flight, attend your Dad’s party, then catch the red-eye home?” Marcia prodded gently.

“No!” he said a little too loudly. “No,” he repeated, this time more quietly. “We already decided.” He looked with exasperation at his wife, as if she were no longer his friend. “I can’t count on anything going wrong with the flight the night before the finals. That’s just crazy.” He paused, emotionally drained. “Why are we going over this again?”

“Okay. Okay. I’m with you,” she said, sorry she had even broached the subject. Michael was strung out with the pressure of preparing for the bar exam, and she had inadvertently made the situation worse. “You’re doing the right thing,” she added lamely, although she sincerely believed it.

Michael shook his head sadly. “It’s such lousy timing. How can I be in two places at once,” he said miserably.

Marcia was worried. Her husband was starting on a downward slide. What was needed was a plan of action. She had one. “Listen, Sweetheart,” she said, her voice full of a confidence she hoped was contagious, “let’s order a large pizza, you go back to studying, and I spend some quality time with Scraps.”

‘Scraps’ wasn’t his real name, of course. He actually had three official ones listed with the Canadian Kennel Club where he was registered as a miniature wire-haired dachshund. He earned his unrefined nickname during his puppy days when he would strategically position himself in the kitchen and remain on stand-by alert. That way, if any table scraps should happen to fall to the floor, he was ready to make his move. He was just crazy about scraps — hence his new handle.

Now all grown-up, the dog was tunneling head first under the thick comforter where he wedged himself firmly against Marcia’s thigh. She often wondered how the tiny dog kept from suffocating under all those heavy covers. But there was no point in trying to figure out Scraps. He was his own little person.

Michael’s mood was beginning to lift. “You’re the best,” he said softly. “I’m sorry for my outburst.” He sat down on the bed beside her.

“Forget about it. I have.”

Marcia knew her husband was not normally given to tantrums, but Gordon had pushed his buttons. The decision not to go home for his Dad’s retirement party had been a tough one for Michael, especially since he realized it might make him look like an ungrateful SOB. The fact was Michael truly did love his parents and he wanted to be with them for this milestone, but the bar exam was crucial. He had to make a choice, but disappointing his Dad tore him up inside. That was what Gordon didn’t understand, but Marcia did.

“Do you think it’s wrong to hate your only brother?” he wondered out loud.

“Why don’t you ask Gordon?” Marcia suggested with a wry smile.

Michael lay down on his back and folded his arms beneath his head, staring up at the ceiling. Marcia’s question had him thinking. Scraps backed out from under the covers and nuzzled against Michael’s side. The pack was together again. What could be better than that?

“I guess Gordon has a right to hate me,” Michael sighed.

“Don’t be silly.” Marcia hesitated. Should she point out how his parents had financially rescued Gordon and his wife for most of their long tumultuous marriage? “You’ve both benefited from being the sons of your parents,” she said presently. “He made choices, and so did you. Why look for someone to blame? That Gordon’s game, and, if you ask me, he’s not a happy man.”

Michael was silent for a moment. He flipped over onto his stomach and propped himself up on his elbows. “If there was any way I could have been there for the retirement party, I would have. Dad and I talked about it last week, and he said he understood.” Michael paused. “Do you?”

“Of course.”

Michael sat up and faced his wife. He gave her an earnest look. “Why don’t we go out there, say in July, when you’re finished teaching and I have some time off. What do you think?”

“I don’t know. I was planning on teaching summer school this year — we could use the money. On the other hand, I could use a break.” Marcia pressed her lips together in a thoughtful pose. “Maybe we should ask Scraps,” she said, half jokingly. Whenever either of them had to think through a difficult decision, Scraps was the one who usually held the answer. They focused a fixed stare on the dog.

Sensing too much of the wrong kind of attention, Scraps launched himself off the bed, gave his ears a quick shake, then made a bee-line for his crate.

Michael and Marcia laughed together.

Then the phone rang.

Michael looked at the ‘call waiting’ display and groaned.

“So, what have you decided?” From the thickness in Gordon’s voice, it was obvious he had continued drinking since his last phone call.

“I told you when you called earlier, we can’t make it,” Michael said wearily. He wondered why he had bothered to answer the phone.

“Oh, tha’s right, you have to study,” Gordon slurred his words heavily. “Gonna be a big shot lawyer!”

“Listen, if you’re going to be a jerk, I’m going to hang up right now.” Michael’s shoulder muscles were starting to twitch.

“Oooh, a ‘jerk.’ That hurt. Well, you know what? I was ‘admitted to the bar’ today … tha’s right, me … and I din even have to study for it.” He chuckled into the phone.

“I already explained everything to Dad. Give it a rest, why don’t you?” Michael made a mental note to himself. From now on, Gordon would be speaking to the answering machine.

“Well, okay,” Gordon sneered. “No pro-plem-mo. I’ll be your stand-in at the party. Say that’s a good one, huh? Me standing in for you.”

Michael had had enough. “I’m going to hang up now. You’re drunk.”

“Wait … wait, kid … wait. Gotta say somethin’ …. Then we’re through talking. Okay?”

Michael thought for a minute. “Okay. But then don’t call me again.”

“Listen, little brother, you don’ need t’ come home — guess why.”

Michael let out a heavy sigh. “Okay, I’ll bite. Why?”

“’Cause there’s no need.” He started cackling like a half-wit. “Dad ain’t who you think he is.”

“What does that mean?”

Gordon smacked his lips. “You really wanna know?”

Michael was fuming. “I don’t have time for this. Get to the point, or get off the line.”

“Well, okay, Bro, if you insist.” The weird cackling suddenly ceased. Gordon cleared his throat. “Dad is not your Dad.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Michael said in disgust. “If he’s not my Dad, who is?”

“I am,” Gordon replied. Then he hung up the phone.

7 comments

  1. JAZZ

    Who among us did not rush back to do the math and in doing so discovered the foreshadowing..?
    Well done, Bev….!!

  2. Charles Pinch

    Congratulations on an excellent story! You have an engaging, easy going style that moves the narrative along quickly and unobtrusively and the characters are nicely sketched. There is sometimes a tendency to sentimentalize in stories like this and it is a measure of your ability that you did not yield to it. ‘I got admitted to the bar today, too..’ is a great line, funny, wonderfully original. Unlike a number of ‘surprise ending’ stories I’ve read recently, I didn’t see yours coming. Now that’s talent! Very satisfying read.

  3. Rosalie

    Didn’t see it coming – totally surprised. Well executed. I couldn’t read fast enough. Enjoyed every word.

  4. michael joll

    Like Charles, I didn’t see it coming. I’m definitely not playing poker with you!

  5. Sophia Munro

    I did not see that coming! More importantly in your writing you described indirectly and directly each character so well that when Michael learns the truth you just know how every character in the story is going to be affected. How did you manage to pack all that into a short story?? I loved it — keep writing.

  6. Bev Bachmann

    To Jazz, Charles, Rosalie, Michael, Hannah, and Sophia: Thank you so very much for your kind words in response to my story. I was heartily encouraged by each and every one of them. When I left teaching, my first love, I didn’t know if I could make it as a writer. As I always used to tell my students, evidence is what counts. So, thank you all for providing it.

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