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That evening during graduation ceremony there was a mixed feeling of gladness and sadness in the air. The boys, for the most part, were boisterous and exuberant, while the girls were more reserved, not a few of them with tears in their eyes. Before the ceremony the soon-to-be graduates all mingled in their small groups of intimates, each of them certain that theirs was the group to which all the other students longed to belong.
The setting was a college basketball arena that had witnessed many such affairs--long rows of young men and young women, some smiling, some solemn, proudly marching up to the platform and receiving a sacred document that testified to the world--or at least to all the family and friends who bothered to show up--that they were now fit to proceed to the adult world of college. Mr. and Mrs. Lebeau and a starchy-collared Royce sat in the first row of stands, and Dan and Linc stood beneath them, the five of them visiting. And Dan did wear his old blue jeans--not because his mother wouldn't object to such a breech of protocol, but because she hadn't been present at home while Dan was getting ready. She was working, and he had left for the ceremony before she got home. The jeans didn't create much of a stir, however; everyone knew that was just Dan being Dan.
The ceremony passed without incident, for the teachers ramrodding the affair were all paragons of efficiency. There were the usual prayers, speeches, songs, and such, followed by the handing out of diplomas, that each student might have his moment in the spotlight.
Dan was one of the first students to cross the stage, and that left him a lot of time on his hands with which to get into mischief. But to everyone's surprise (relief, in his parents' case), he didn't. He amused himself by admiring the prettier girls of his class (with the exception of Clare, of course, out of loyalty to Linc).
Linc was handed his diploma about halfway through the ceremony; and while marching soberly back to his seat, he tried to gauge his emotional response to the event: He felt only that he felt nothing at all, not the least inclination of accomplishment. He wondered if his fellow classmates were equally underwhelmed.
Linc took his seat. He looked over at Clare: she wasn't looking in his direction, and hadn't, he supposed, all evening. Though Clare was looking particularly lovely that night, he felt himself shrug his shoulders. Who needs her? he thought. He grew sleepy, wondering if his shrugging of his shoulders had been voluntary or involuntary--He decided on the latter, and that only served to reinforce his newfound indifference to the one everybody referred to as the prettiest girl in school. For a moment he scanned the arena seats for her father, but all he saw was a sea of blurry faces. Still, he was certain he could feel the man's disapproving eyes upon him, judging him as not quite up to par.
Only because he thought he should, Linc did go over to congratulate Clare once the ceremony was over. But when their eyes met, Clare averted hers. Big deal, he thought, no rack. He then went and found Dan.
The boys went over to meet their families. Dan spent only a moment with his own parents, and then he went and joined the Lebeau family. Linc's parents tried to make as big a fuss over Dan as they did Linc: patting him on the back, having a look at his diploma, taking his photograph (the latter act a brilliant stroke that never even occurred to the Blair parents).
Linc's mother had tears in her eyes. Hugging Linc, she asked him if he was glad he had decided to take part in the ceremony after all.
"Sure, Mom," he lied.
Dan moved behind Royce and held the boy's wrists behind his back while teasing him about whether or not the bow tie he was wearing was real or a clip-on, causing Royce to kick backwards at Dan and try to force him to loosen his hold. Helpless in that grip, Royce finally swore at Dan, causing Mrs. Lebeau to say, "Boys!"; then Dan released him. She had always been able to control Dan with but a word, much moreso than she could Linc.
Someone in a snugly fitting sports jacket tapped Dan on the shoulder: it was Bully Biggs. Offering his hand to Dan, that sentimental giant said, "I just had to see you two guys graduate."
"I'm touched, Bully," said Dan. "But I hope you're not gonna start crying on us."
"Ha!" boomed Bully. "Here's a little something for you guys." He handed Dan a small, carelessly wrapped present. "I'm sorry it's not much. There wasn't room on it for a tag."
Madly tearing open the gift, Dan said, "Any luck with the ducks, Bully?"
"Never found 'em. I got all turned around out there, so I gave 'em up."
Dan found four fishing lures in the small package, the four of them secured as pairs by two rubber bands.
"Now two of those are for you, Linc," said Bully.
Dan scrutinized the lures. He chose for himself the two he liked best and handed the remaining two to Linc.
"Thanks, Bully," said Linc. "I can't wait to get them wet."
"Yeah, thanks," said Dan, lifting his gown and carefully cramming them into separate, tight pockets, not wanting to stab himself with the barbs.
"Like I said, it's not much. I just wanted to get the two of you guys something."
Moved by the gift, Linc introduced Bully to his family. Then he asked Bully if he would like to go along with him and Dan to Molly's. After extending the invitation, Linc regarded Dan's eyes, expecting to find them rolling in disgust, but they weren't. Dan was too surprised at receiving a gift from someone other than his family or Linc to say much of anything.
"Sure," said Bully, "I'd like to come along. Hey, but I can't stay for long, because I'm supposed to watch my brother while my folks go to the late show."
Dan had driven himself to graduation, and after one last round of congratulations, he drove the other two boys to Molly's. (Bully was the kind of boy who walked most everywhere. And living right on the boundary of his own and the boys' high school, a walk home from Molly's wouldn't be far out of his way.) Once inside the car, Linc asked Bully how old his little brother was.
"Does he go to Hills Junior?"
"Yeah. He's pretty smart, too. His name's Arthur, so I call him Smarty Arty."
"Oh, that's hilarious," said Dan, his good feeling toward Bully evaporating rapidly.
"What time does he get up in the morning, Bully?" asked Linc. "Is he up real early?"
"Him? He slept past noon today."
"No . . . I was talking about on schooldays," Linc clarified.
Oh, I don't know . . . not too early, I guess. Mom's always having to rush, rush, rush with him to get him to the bus on time."
"What are his grades like?" asked Linc, facing round to Bully sitting in back.
"He's real smart. He's not like me; he gets all good grades."
"What is all this jabber?" demanded Dan, unable to hear the radio, turning it up a notch.
Linc said, "I'm trying to find out about his brother so I can compare him to Royce. I just want to be able to feel like Royce is a normal kid."
"Royce? Normal?" said Dan. "Your brother Royce? Royce is not normal. No, sir, not by a long shot, he's not. . . . Always reading, up at all hours like some crazy old guy, always looking at you over his glasses the way he does--that's what really gives me the creeps." Then, turning to the back seat for a quick glance at Bully, he said, "That sound normal to you, Bully? How about having to be the first one down to the curb--in his pajamas--to flag down the paperboy? Ho! Ho! Yeah, he's normal. He's real normal."
"There's nothing wrong with reading that I can see," said Bully, his dull mind not yet able to ponder the other eccentricities of Royce's that Dan had reeled off.
"No, there's nothing wrong with reading, as long as it's done in moderation," Linc added.
Dan said, "Oh, Christ, yes, Linc, all things in moderation! Just don't start with that crap, okay? Reading--that's just the first thing I mentioned. What about all those other things I just said? I'm telling you Royce is two hundred years old if he's a day. He should be in one of those homes for old-timers." Then, turning down the radio and turning for a second to Linc, he said, "Why don't you back up, Linc, and tell us what in Christ's name you know about reading."
"I read sometimes," Linc said softly.
"The baseball pages don't count, Linc."
"Let's drop it, Dan."
They pulled into the parking lot and then went inside Molly's to find a booth.
"I see you guys brought along a bodyguard this time," said Jack the waiter, when he saw Bully Biggs. Since Bully came in with the boys, Jack figured he must be all right.
"Yeah," said Dan, "and if you don't bring us some burgers and fries pretty damn quick, it'll be curtains for you even quicker, Jacky."
"Comin' up. Cokes?"
"Well, let's see," said Dan. "One . . . two . . . three of us--It looks like we'll be needing three of 'em. Hurry it up now. I'm starved." Dan rubbed his hands together in anticipation of his food.
Burgers and fries and Cokes for three--Jack wouldn't even need to write that down; he could just holler it in to Molly, who, with the aid of two other women, was seeing to things in the kitchen. Jack wasn't long in bringing back their food. And right when the boys had just begun to enjoy it, the telephone rang, sounding in a strange, tinny tone, because one of the kitchen ladies had left it on the raised metal shelf separating the kitchen and the service bar. Though Jack was closest, he took his time about answering it. It was for Linc:
"Linc? It's me."
"I'm with the guys, Clare. What do you want?"
"Linc . . . ohh, I'm pregnant, Linc." She gasped out the words.
Linc said nothing for several, what seemed eternal, seconds. He could hear her breath on the line. He could tell she was about to cry.
"Are you waiting for me to congratulate you?" he said icily.
"What's wrong with you, Linc! You were always so nice, but now you're always so . . . so ugly to me . . . to everybody."
"What do you want me to say, Clare? Am I supposed to pretend I'm interested? I'm not. I'm not interested in you, your child, or your daddy." Linc's words sounded strange and cruel to his own ears. He felt an urge to change his approach, to be kind. He felt a stronger urge to stay the course he had taken, the course of frosty indifference.
"Daddy will kill me!" she moaned. She covered her head with a pillow and let out a cry of anguish. Her father was bunkered in his den at the opposite end of the house, but Clare wasn't taking any chances on him hearing her. She clung to a tiny hope that Linc might somehow make things better, bleak as they may be, for he had always had that knack. This time she whispered that her father would kill her.
"Wouldn't that put an end to all your problems?"
"Linc, I just had--"
He quietly replaced the receiver.
She cried. She cried herself out. Sapped of energy, she marched forlornly to her father's den. She found the strength to tell him only that she was pregnant and that Linc was the one.
The revelation struck her father hard. He grabbed her by the arms, hurting her. When he saw her cowering, he released her. Not knowing what to do with them, he flung his hands down to his sides. Once more overcome with a rage demanding to be vented, he raised a hand to strike her. When she instinctively turned her face to accept the blow, he lowered his hand. He couldn't do it. He swept her face up in his hands, muttering, "When the girl is this lovely, it's the boy who must be strong." Then, in a whisper, he repeated those words.
He found his handkerchief and tenderly dried her tears, once more remarking on her beauty, placing all blame on Linc. He led her over to a chair, and she told him all about her latest conversation with Linc, repeating verbatim all the unkind things he had said to her. Her father simmered through the telling of it.
"I gotta go, guys," said Linc, when he got back to the table.
"I'll drop you, Linc," said Dan. "you're not mad, are you? I was only kidding you about Royce. Royce is all right."
"What? . . . Oh, I know you were. I'd rather walk. . . . I need to think." He left them.
Bully asked Dan if it would be all right with him if he took Linc's hamburger.
"Split it with you," said Dan, reaching across for the left food. "I'll take his fries."
In order to ponder his troubles, Linc took the long way home. Lightning in the distant southern sky was more evidence of the heat than it was of some coming rain shower. It wasn't at all like Linc to speak to Clare (or to her father, previously, for that matter) the way he had. Both times, something inside him snapped; for the first time in his life, he found himself the possessor of a short fuse. People would do well to give him wide berth. He had lately been under a lot of pressure (to his way of thinking), what with trying to eke out his grades enough to qualify for graduation, and the pressure Clare's father had been heaping on him about what he planned on doing with himself in the future, and last but not least, the pressure of being friend, brother, and father to Dan. The news from Clare was just a final straw breaking the back of an already-crippled camel. He would have felt better about things had he been sophisticated enough to realize there were millions of youngsters in the same boat as he was--if, of course, Dan were excluded from the equation.
Linc sat down on the curb. "A baby. A baby," he muttered. Didn't he, he wondered, already have his hands full with Dan? It wasn't fair. "It isn't fair," he said, with not a soul there to hear him, save an old cat beginning to rub itself against his pants. Those were his good pants, so he pushed away the nuzzling feline, and muttered, "Ah, get off, Chrissakes."
Linc had, since being a young boy, made it his personal policy always to put others before himself, never for a minute regarding whether or not adhering to that policy might not be in his own best interest. Lately he had felt he was being pulled in a hundred different directions, toward things in which he wasn't so sure he believed. There were so many choices to make, but none of the choices appealed to him. What was he to do? That was a question he was sick and tired of being asked. But what was he to do?
Once he got home he went quietly to his room, lay down on his bed, and watched the ceiling fan make its revolutions. That was where he always did his best thinking, lying on that bed. He wondered what was going through Clare's mind. Had she, he wondered, told her father? He clenched his eyes closed hard and watched the last glimpse of light he had just shut out form strange yet recognizable colorful forms take shape against the blackness of his eyelids.
In the haze of half-sleep he heard the doorbell ring but didn't move to answer it. A few minutes later his father spoke through the locked bedroom door:
"What is it, Pop?"
"Clare and Mr. Robbins are here to see you."
Linc mechanically got out of bed and followed his father to the living room. Clare and her father waited just inside the door, neither of them looking very pleased, Clare's face swollen and lined from crying.
"Come, please sit down," offered Mr. Lebeau, not knowing what to do with himself, for he knew something was very wrong.
"Thank you, sir, but I assure you, this is no pleasure call," Mr. Robbins said severely.
"First things first," he continued, this time addressing Linc. "You, young man, owe my daughter an apology for the way you spoke to her on the telephone a short while ago."
"I surely do," said Linc, turning to Clare, adding, "I apologize, Clare."
Clare only gazed down at the floor. Her father having convinced her of her innocence, she no longer felt kindly toward Linc.
"Sir," said Mr. Robbins, addressing Linc's father, "your son has impregnated my daughter."
Mr. Lebeau was understandably stunned. He said that he didn't know what to say.
"I only ask you to say what you plan on doing about it," said Mr. Robbins, achieving his full height, towering over the others.
"Is this true, son?" asked Mr. Lebeau.
"You'll have to ask Clare," said Linc.
"Linc!" she said, finally looking up from the floor.
"You impertinent--" began Mr. Robbins.
Linc said, "Listen, sir, this has nothing to do with my father. If you have anything to say, say it to me." He took one step toward Mr. Robbins.
"Very well. But it's my understanding you refused to take responsibility. Am I mistaken?"
"If, by that, you're asking whether or not I'm the father, then I would say, if Clare told you I am, I am. But if you're asking whether or not I'm going to be helping to raise a child, then I would say no, I'm not." Linc hadn't had time to give the matter much thought, but he was sure he wanted no part of it; he couldn't be tied down with a child.
"But you are the child's father! you impertinent beast," growled Mr. Robbins.
"And you want an impertinent beast to raise your grandchild?" Linc asked, logically, but oh-so sarcastically.
"I, young man, wouldn't want you within a thousand miles of the brat, er, er, the child. I only want you to own up to your responsibility. All I want from you, young man, is for you to meet your financial obligations to your child. Certain costs are incurred when--"
"I'm sick and tired of you hinting about my responsibilities and how you would have me order my life to suit you. If you or Clare don't like the way things stack up, I think maybe you should consider other possibilities."
"Young man, I can't believe you would even breathe the word abortion to a family man like myself!" said Mr. Robbins, his face colored with rage. He took out his handkerchief, still damp with his daughter's tears, and swabbed his forehead.
Linc said, "I didn't breathe anything. I was talking about putting the baby up for adoption. But since you bring it up--a fine family man like yourself--that decision would have to be yours and Clare's. I couldn't take a hand in any part of something like that." Linc was having fun by this time, the sort of fun that leaves a sick taste in one's mouth.
"I have suggested no such--"
"Mr. Robbins, you brought it up."
"What! This is an abomination! You affront my values, my high morality! How do people like you even consider such a course? I'm astonished! I--I--I'm appalled!"
"You're forgetting again, sir--and it's not much fun having to remind you every two seconds--that you're the one who brought it up in the first place. But I have no doubt, now that you mention it, that the child would be better off never being born than to be exposed to you--or your daughter, for that matter, since she has been under your . . . your poor influence."
"Linc!" said Clare.
Linc said, "Is that all you ever have to add, Clare, 'Linc!'? Surely, Clare, you of all people know what I'm saying is true."
"I'm at a loss to discover what my daughter ever saw in you, you little thug," sneered Mr. Robbins.
"Once again you change the subject," Linc said calmly. "I've known all along how you feel about me, and I've never cared. The topic at hand is that you immediately get your daughter to a clinic and have your grandchild scraped away from her body--I mean, since you refuse to consider any other alternatives for the poor child."
"You try to twist everything around--my words--I--Oh, my morals!"
"This isn't about what you value: it isn't about money at all."
"But my belief in family as the cornerstone of republican government!"
"Now what's all this?" said Linc, trying his damnedest to look baffled. "We just can't have that child under your influence. Please leave now. It's time for you to do what you've decided to do. I can see it's useless to try and convince you to put the child up for adoption. Go on, now, and do your dirty deed." He took the guests by the elbow and led them the few steps to the door. "Let me know, by letter, how it all turns out."
Linc shut the door behind them and clicked the lock just as Mr. Robbins was saying something further about his "lofty values-system."
Mr. Lebeau had said nothing during Linc's harangue and was increasingly shocked as it continued. Linc's rude behavior, lumped on top of the distressing news of Clare's pregnancy, was too much. Finally, he said:
"What's got into you, son?"
"Nothing, Dad. Thanks for letting me handle that."
"I'm aware of how that man's always treated you, son, but you were cruel. And talking to Clare that way--"
"I'm sorry, Pop. He's such a windbag. Guys like him think that guys like me are in awe of them; they think we should admire them or something. It's such a joke. Truth is, guys like me just sit back and laugh at guys like him."
"Calm down, son. Let's sleep on this, then look at it fresh in the morning."
Linc agreed that that would be a good idea. He said he didn't feel much like talking any more tonight. They said goodnight.
Mr. Lebeau sat down. He ran through his mind all that had just been revealed to him. He regretted not having said at least something to Linc about being more careful next time. But on further consideration, he decided that if he had said something to Linc about being more careful, Linc might take that as permission to do whatever he wished with the next girl, as long as the proper precautions were taken. And then, quite out of character, Mr. Lebeau's racing mind searched for ways to blame Clare, instead of Linc, for what happened. She was a pretty girl, he reflected, even beautiful; and would it be stretching anyone's imagination to call her irresistible? No, it wouldn't, he was sure of it. He wanted to know how his son, a mere lad of flesh and bone, was supposed to resist the irresistible.
"No, no, no," he said aloud, despising himself for what he was thinking. It wouldn't do for him to scheme against Clare. He could see her now, in his mind's eye, standing before him as she had done only minutes before: so sad and sweet, but with lovely decorum, heartbroken, her world turned on end. Yes, he concluded, that was a good girl that had stood in his living room. But then so was Linc, he was sure of it. He took his own advice and went to bed, where he had the bitter task of explaining to his wife what had gone on between Linc and Clare.
Once in his room, Linc telephoned Dan.
"Dan, I've had it, man. I'm going away in the morning."
"What's wrong? Are you okay?"
"Clare's pregnant. . . . Listen, I've been a real jerk; I don't like the way things are stacking up around here."
"You got Clare pregnant?" asked Dan, being his usual insensitive self.
"Dan, listen, I'm--"
"I didn't even know you two had done it!"
"Forget about that for now, Dan, will ya?" Linc was frustrated.
"For now, okay; but I want to hear about it later."
"All right, all right. Are you ready to listen now, Dan?"
"I think so. . . . Yeah, I'm listening."
"I wanted to know if you want to come along with me. I don't want you to feel like you have to, I just wanted you to know you're welcome to come if you want to."
"You're not going to ask Bully along, are you? I just got rid of him, for Christ's sake."
"No kidding." Dan was only kidding. As soon as he and Bully had finished eating Linc's food, Dan started saying how tired he was, which led to Bully's insisting they call it a night. Dan did give him a ride home, however.
"What did you two talk about for so long?" asked Linc.
"Mostly a lot of him telling me how wonderful you and I are. Man, I already knew all that--about me, anyway. Seriously, he's not coming along, is he?"
"No--but we're taking Jamie."
"You asked her first? I'm a little miffed."
"She doesn't know it yet. What do you say, Dan?"
"If you're going, then so am I. Beats kicking around here all summer. But what are we gonna use for money? I've got about three bucks."
"I'm gonna try to get old Pete to give us some."
"And if he won't?"
"Then I'll get Jamie to ask him. I think he'd do about anything for her."
"You really think Jamie will leave old Pete?"
"I think she might. Listen, I'll be over for you early, so be ready."
"See ya early, Linc."
Continue . . .
All text copyright John T. 1995-Present. All rights reserved.