The day of the promotion Junior felt a surge of excitement which he had not felt in a long time. Last time might have been when he was accepted into his college program, which he still hoped to complete one day. He still kept the acceptance letter in his desk drawer at work, occasionally taking it out and reading it over again, thinking about how it would have felt if he had been able to graduate. Now, however, he had another letter, one that informed him of his promotion. He carried that with him in his breast pocket so he could show his father.
He knocked on his father’s door and waited. No one answered at first so, he knocked again. This time he heard his father’s footsteps which fell upon the floor with authority, whose verdict he heard under his own boots, as he felt his father come closer. The steps were not hurried. They were always in control. The door sprang open and his father stretched across the gaping door. Junior could tell his father had dressed quickly for he simply wore his robe with no undershirt and he could see his father’s broad chest and specks of grey hair that covered it. Junior found himself lowering his head as if he were bowing, a natural reaction in the presence of his father.
“Is it Friday already?” His father voice was deep and his lips barely moved. There were hints of facial hair on his father’s chin.
“No pa, it’s still Wednesday.”
“Of course I know what day it is, you think I’m that far gone?”
Junior smiled, embarrassed at taking his father’s question literally. His father often joked and asked questions that didn’t need answers but he found himself answering them anyway.
“I thought you only came to see your old man on Friday’s?”
His father stepped back, allowing Junior space to come inside. Junior squeezed past his father who closed the door behind them. His father was a big man, Junior had to look up to speak to him. His shoulders were still strong for someone his age, his chest still stuck out further than his belly even though men his age often had a fuller belly. But his father had always taken care of himself. His father pulled him in for an embrace. There was a musky smell to him as if he had just been exercising. His father let him go and like a little child, Junior found himself staring up at his father.
“So, what’s the special occasion?” He asked.
Before Junior could answer his father started for the kitchen and Junior hurried to keep up with his father’s long strides.
“I was just making some coffee. You want some?”
“You like sugar in it?”
“I don’t have any. The doctor said to lay off so I’ve been having it black. It might be too bitter for you.”
“I think I can handle it.” He said.
“You sure? I guess you’re a grown boy now.”
Junior sat down on the kitchen table and watched his father pour two cups of coffee. He felt for the letter in his breast pocket and waited for the right time to show his father.
His father joined him at the table, placing a cup of coffee in front of Junior.
Junior felt the warmth through the mug as he lifted the cup to his lip. His father was not lying when he said the coffee was bitter but he could see his father watching him so he took another sip and acted as if it was good.
“Better now, she’s almost over her cold,” Junior said, lowering the cup down to the table.
His father spread out on the chair and faced towards Junior. Junior felt as if he was back in school, in the principle’s office having to answer for something he did wrong. That feeling quickly passed but before he could bring up the letter, his father spoke.
“I have been meaning to thank her for letting an old man like me stay with you for those few months.”
“Oh, there’s nothing to thank. It was the least we could do.”
“I must have been a real nuisance for you to get rid of me so quickly.”
His father smiled before taking a sip of his coffee.
Junior could not meet his father’s eyes as he stared at the table top where his coffee cup was, watching the steam rise. Although his father had been a difficult house guest for he needed so much attention, Junior could never bring himself to tell the truth to his father. Instead, he had told his father that it would be better for him if he had his own place, a sense of independence. Of course, his father must have seen through the partial lie as he often hinted at the truth.
“No, it was never like that.” Junior’s voice was soft, barely above a whisper, it was as if his father’s gaze could change his tone, manipulate his words, cause the letters to come out quickly, in a hurried manner as if he were out of breath.
“Come on, I’m only joking,” his father’s strong hand struck Junior on the shoulder, “we can joke with one another, can’t we? That’s what men do. Your mother never understood it but I told her that it’s all play between us.”
Junior replied with a smile and a soft, “yes,” that was barely audible and sounded more like a deep exhale.
“But I must say, I would like to see my boy and his bride more than once a week, you know, I’m an old man now, not much left for me in this life, if I can’t even get my blood to come to see me, what am I still doing here?”
The truth in those words could not be ignored. They were true because they were Junior’s own thoughts. He had often felt as if he had not been doing enough as a son. His father had done so much for him that he felt a sense of debt to his father which he was not sure he could ever pay back.
Junior always felt the burden of his father’s shadow. He carried in his heart the notion that he had failed to live up to his father’s sacrifices. He had watched his father slowly change as he lost his youth, working, taking care of Junior, waiting for the day Junior would be able to take care of him. But that day had taken too long and in the meantime, his father had become wasted. He still recalled the day when his father got sick and could no longer work. He had a bad heart and the doctor told him he needed long periods of rest. Junior offered his help, he felt obliged to do so after all his father had done for him. Junior understood his father’s hesitation to quit his work. How could his boy run when he had never even learned to walk?
Which was why the new promotion meant so much to Junior. With the new promotion, he felt as if he had finally arrived in life. He had concrete proof that his father’s sacrifices were not for nothing. More so, it was proof that he could do something good with his life. He had often wondered if he was capable like his father if he could work as hard as his old man, for he had never been much of a worker. It was a comfort that his father had provided him. In such comfortability, he felt softened. Such thoughts had plagued Junior’s mind for a long time.
“I know pa, I’ve been meaning to come more often but work’s got us busy—”
“Ah yes, how are you liking my old job?”
“Do they still talk about me or have they forgotten about the old workhorse?”
“They remember, pa, how can they forget someone like you?”
“What good is a horse if he can’t gallop,” his father said, his voice flat and toneless as if he were making a statement to himself.
Junior had quickly found work as a manager in a company. It was the same company his father used to work at. The workers often talked to him about his father. At first, they simply asked about his father’s health but as they started to know Junior and get comfortable around him, they would tell him about how intimidating his father was. This often happened once they had a few drinks after work. One of the workers, George, even said that his father had made him cry one day. Many recalled his father’s stare when the work wasn’t done properly. The workers were glad Junior was not like his father. However, Junior, upon hearing such complaints felt he needed to speak on his father behalf and he told the workers that his father was just under a lot of stress especially after his mother had passed away.
At work, Junior quickly gained the reputation for working hard, something that he had desired for he was not sure he had such a trait in him. For two years he sacrificed his vacation times and most weekends to put in extra hours at work. He felt as if he owned the company that which had been generous enough to provide him with work when he was desperate. However, such sacrifices came at a cost. His wife had to take a back seat to his ambition. However, Junior felt as if his ambition was not selfish. It was a selfless ambition to make his father’s life more comfortable and also his wives.
His father finished his cup of coffee.
He stared at Junior’s almost full cup, knowing he had been right about his son’s taste. He took his own empty cup to the sink and started to rinse it.
“I can do that for you,” Junior said, joining his father at the kitchen sink.
“I’m not that old yet,” his father replied.
“I didn’t mean that,” said Junior whose voice was drowned by the flow of the tap water. His father shut it off and placed the cup to dry on the side of the cloth placed beside the kitchen sink.
“So they still remember the old bull?” He asked.
“Oh, very much, in fact, Mr. Johnson was talking to me about you just this afternoon.”
“My works got you looking soft,” his father poked Junior in the belly. “Here, look at mine, still solid,” he slapped his own stomach with an open palm, “now you must know how hard I used to work to keep in shape.”
“I guess Emily’s been keeping me too well fed,” Junior smiled.
“That’s no excuse. A man has to stay tight. Softness is an illness to his character. How can you expect others to follow you if they see this belly of yours? You can’t lead men if you can’t even control what you put in your mouth, son.”
“I guess that’s true.”
“Of course I’m right, I’ve been doing your job much longer than you have.”
“I saw the doc the other day and you know what he said?” His father didn’t wait for an answer although Junior opened his mouth to reply. “He said I’m in the top percentile of his patients when it comes to my physique. I told the doc I’ve never missed a day of exercising. Every morning I exercise. You should do that too or else you’re gonna fall apart when you become a geezer like me.”
There was a hint of a joke in his father speech and so Junior smiled, weakly. His father patted him on the shoulder and said, “don’t worry, boy, you’ve got plenty of time to straighten up.”
“But listen, pa, I got some good news for you.”
His father turned towards him, leaning onto the kitchen counter, arms folded across his chest.
Junior reached into his breast pocket and pulled out the letter from his supervisor.
“I’m being promoted, pa.” He said, presenting the letter to his father.
His father did not accept it.
“About time we got that position.”
He turned his back to his son and picked out a glass bowl from the cabinet above. “The son always eats the sweet fruit of his father’s labor,” he said, as he poured cornflakes into his glass bowl.
“I am very grateful, pa.” Junior’s arm hung beside him now, his hand still holding the letter.
His father spoke, as he poured mike into the bowl, “I suppose that is what the purpose of being a father is. I lay the foundation, build upon it, make it nice and pretty for you to come and see further than I ever did. Congratulations son.”
His father took a spoonful and aggressively shoved it in his mouth, some of the milk dribbled down his chin which he wiped with the back of his hand.
“I was thinking,” Junior said, “this new position can allow me to hire some help to look after you the days I can’t come.”
His father chewed, his jaw flexing and relaxing, his eyes staring right at Junior and Junior’s own shifted back to the tabletop, where his coffee had lost its steam.
“So you’ll be coming to see me even less?” His father asked.
“No, no, nothing like that, pa, I just felt it’ll be good for you to have someone around to talk to and be with.”
“Why can’t that someone be my own boy?”
Junior felt his voice soften. “These past few months I’ve been neglecting Emily too much and I just thought the two of can spend more time together, maybe go on a trip.”
His father did not reply. Instead, he quietly finished his bowl of cereal, the metal spoon scraping the glass bowl after each bite. Once the bowl was empty, he let out a sigh and leaned back into his chair.
“It makes sense, more time for your bride and less time for your old man. Don’t worry, I’ll be gone soon, you’ll have plenty of time after that.”
“Please don’t talk like that.”
“All these years I spent working, I only did that so I could see my boy do good in his life. So, I’m happy for you, son and now, if it means to watch you from afar, then I suppose I’ll do that, I’ll clap for you from the stands.”
He stood up, towering over Junior, “you do what you think is best, after all, you’re the man of the house now, right?”
Junior looked down, staring at his father’s strong legs and feeling the weight of his father’s touch as he lightly patted him on the cheek. His father picked up the coffee mug and carried it with the empty bowl to the sink. He poured out the coffee, which was cold now, into the sink and rinsed out the cup before cleaning the bowl as well. He left both the cup and bowl to dry beside the other mug.
He seemed to be waiting for Junior to say something, perhaps apologize, to take back what he had said, thank him for the promotion but Junior stayed silent, his voice caught in his throat.
“Well you must be a busy man these days,” his father said, “I shouldn’t keep you away from your bride much longer.” He started for the door and Junior stood up without a word and followed his father’s strides.
His father held the door open for him and Junior stepped through.
“It was good seeing you.” His father said.
“Pa, listen, I would come more often if it wasn’t for Emily and the work—”
His father smiled, quieting Junior with his look.
“Your grandfather would not tolerate such words, in fact, I think he would hate you for saying such things. I’m different than my father, I don’t judge like he used to. He would have judged you to be a lousy boy, inconsiderate. He was a hard man from a different time but I still loved him and took care of him because that’s the duty of a son. But I me, I don’t judge you. You do what you think is best and send my regards to my workers and also to Emily.”
The light from the sun cast his father’s shadow upon Junior whose gaze was fixed upon his father’s feet, unable to raise his head and meet his father’s eyes.
“I’ll try to make it work.” He said.
“You do what you like, son, you’re the man now.”
His father closed the door.