The day of the promotion Junior felt a surge of excitement which he had not felt in a long time. Last time he had this feeling, he had been accepted into his architecture program, which he still hoped to complete one day. He 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 feeling his fathers presence long before actually seeing him. Something inside him stirred and he straightened his posture and clasped his hands behind his back. The steps were not hurried. His father did not rush for anyone. He was always in control. The door sprang open and his father stretched across the gaping entrance. Junior could tell his father had not been expecting any company 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 front of his father.
“Is it Friday already?” His father voice was deep and his lips barely moved. There was some stubble on his 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?”
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, shoulders still strong for someone his age, chest still stuck out further than his belly even though men his age often had fuller bellies. He 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. When he let him go, like a little child, Junior found himself staring up at his father.
“So, what’s the special occasion?” He asked him.
Before Junior could answer his father started for the kitchen and Junior hurried to keep up with his long strides.
“I was just making some coffee. You want some?”
“Sure. Two teaspoons of sugar please.”
“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.” Junior 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 the coffee. He felt for the letter in his breast pocket and waited for the right time to present it.
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 tell that he was being watched so he took another sip and acted as if it did not bother him.
“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 Junior. Junior felt as if he was back in school, in the principle’s office having to answer for some wrong doing. That feeling quickly passed but before he could bring up the letter, his father spoke.
“I have been meaning to thank her for letting me stay with you for those few months.”
“Oh, that was nothing. 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 his father the truth. He had been a burden on their budding marriage but after all his father had done for him, he was willing to bear the burden but his wife was not. Instead, he had told him that it would be better for him if he had his own place, a sense of independence. Of course, he saw through the partial lie as he often hinted at the truth.
“No, it was never like that.” Junior muttered, his 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 heavy hand patted 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 getting up there, not much left for me, if I can’t even get my boy to come to see me, what am I still doing here?”
“Don’t say that pa, I know I should come more often but I’m just trying to do for what you did for me. You know, I’m trying to make it easy for you. While we are on that subject of work—” he went to take the envelope out when his father asked, “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.
“Mr. Edwards speaks so highly of you there that I’ve had trouble keeping up.” He said which made his father smile. “I’ve been working so much overtime recently so that I don’t fall behind on anything.”
“Just make sure your bride doesn’t mind. That was a good thing about your mother, she understands a man’s need to work.”
“Emily is a doll. She’s always putting up with my headache but I’ll treat her right one of these days, go on a vacation or something.”
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,” he 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. Edwards was talking to me about you today.”
“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.”
“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 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 get to my age.”
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.” 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.” Junior’s arm hung beside him and his hand still holding the letter.
His father spoke, as he poured milk 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.”
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.”
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 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 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 not allowed to speak.
“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 wouldn’t like you one bit 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 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.