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The Beloved Son
By Jay Quinn
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2008 Jay Quinn
All rights reserved.
FOR CONCRETE PROBLEMS, Karl Preston always had an elegant solution. He often woke, as he did this morning, with an idea or a theoretical answer presented as a clear gift from his subconscious. The clock at his beside read just after four, nearly thirty minutes ahead of the alarm and a full hour and a half earlier than usual. But today, Thursday, was not a typical day. His second thoughts veered toward the morning's itinerary, but he didn't want to lose the thread of the clever idea he'd had initially. There was nothing to do but rise quietly and find a way to hold that idea, to seal it against the demands that would come with today's trip. It was Karl's belief, based on experience, that the golden moments of inspiration shouldn't be set behind the quotidian aspects of forging ahead through the day.
He reached from under the warm covers and shut off the clock's alarm before it would chime and disturb Caroline, asleep beside him. Karl shifted and rose as gently as he could, though he was still beset by a spinning head rush on rising. He swayed unsteadily on his feet for only a few seconds before his view of the darkened room stopped spinning. He paid it no mind, assigning it to that list of middle-age tics to which he'd fallen heir. Once he was solid on his feet, he spared a lingering look at his beloved Caro to make sure she was still safely cocooned in sleep. Satisfied she was sleeping peacefully, he walked the length of the bedroom, pulled back the shutters from the windows, and looked out onto the street below. In the unnatural yellow of the streetlights' glow, he found his glasses on the desk between the windows. Conveniently, they rested on a legal pad with a mechanical pencil nearby. Karl was intimate with the experience of rising, being fully awakened by some bright possibility. It happened so frequently that he kept the pad and pencil safely near the window's meager light, ever ready for him to don his glasses and scribble away until he was satisfied he'd captured the essence of the answer that had eluded him during the business of the day.
He slipped on his glasses, quickly dashed off some notes, then made an effortless sketch of the idea. It was not particularly artful, but Karl was not an artist. Nor was it elaborate. Long ago, one of his favorite seniors at the engineering firm he'd started with had cautioned him to remember the difference between building a watch and a winch. Sometimes the brute efficiency of a winch worked perfectly well where the tiny, intricate details of watchmaking were overwrought and obfuscating. Now, whether his thoughts were captivated by a bridge design or roadway routes, he recalled the metaphor. Karl felt so much time and effort was wasted by the inefficiencies of Baroque design solutions when something gestural and economic in thought would work twice as well.
Now a senior partner himself, Karl had deservedly earned a reputation as somewhat of a creative genius by designing practical, beautiful structures. It was a talent much admired by both the other partners and the bean counters at his firm, especially when the crudity and quick, unsubtle excesses of the CADCAM designers cost time and money. To Karl's mind, the computer-aided drafting systems of his juniors allowed them either to wallow in excess or to settle too quickly for a poorly thought out solution. In all things, Karl was studied and thoughtful.
Karl glanced at his thoughts committed to paper. He was certain now that he could refine the sketch after he'd had some coffee, then quickly scan and email it to his office before he left for the airport. Replacing the pencil and pad on the desk, he looked again out the window, and the view pleased him. His home, a new four-story town house, sat at the end of the block, the last of a row of town houses to his left. Across the street, its mirror image rested serenely in the predawn stillness of Cary, North Carolina. The intersection to his right was a clean break before the march of identical, fine town houses began again on the other side.
It was a safe, prosperous setting. Karl's neighborhood had been conceived, designed, and built so. This newer part of Cary's unending sprawl had the sheen of newness still on it, though it was nearly a year since its completion. The neo-Georgian street façade harbored behind it a community of quiet professionals who, contrary to the popular myth of the southern city, were neither effusive nor loudly friendly. It was a very reserved place, and for what it cost it should be so, in Karl's opinion. He and Caroline had happily agreed to invest here for convenience and privacy, as their old home had maxed out its value potential, and simultaneously the neighborhood had begun to sprout bright plastic toys and SUVs that filled drives and spilled onto lawns.
Karl and Caroline were well beyond that stage in their lives. Their daughter, Melanie, had completed her master's degree in art history and was with them now only as a short-term arrangement. Inevitably, her life would continue on somewhere else at the end of her stopgap job teaching an art history seminar at a local women's college. That was her whole purpose in accepting the lectureship, actually: it was meant to give her the time and income to find something more permanent and challenging.
Karl and Caroline didn't think they could bear, as they entered their golden years, living through another generation of toddlers and elementary school kids growing to become obstreperous teenagers. There was no question they'd remain in North Carolina's Research Triangle area, as neither one of them had any intention of retiring early or moving to a more elder-friendly region or city. The thought of joining his parents and brother in southern Florida was not appealing to Karl, and Caroline had no intention of moving to the desolate eastern North Carolina town of her childhood. Affluent, dignified, and convenient, Cary suited them quite well.
As Karl admired the regularity and symmetry of his view, a young woman walking a very large dog made her way hurriedly down the street on the other side of the intersection. While the animal more pulled her along than allowed her to stroll, Karl noticed she kept glancing over her shoulder and then quickened her pace as she came his way. She was dressed oddly. She had thrown a long coat over what appeared to be an oversized T-shirt or a short nightgown, without the benefit of either belting or buttoning the coat. Her legs flashed somewhat obscenely as she half walked, half stumbled along. Even in the chill, she was barefooted on the sidewalk.
As Karl watched her dispassionately and considered the inappropriateness of her dress, a younger man came into view, jogging determinedly toward the young woman. As he gained on her, Karl noted that he wore a pair of jeans, no shirt, and a pair of sneakers. He saw rather than heard the young man call out to her. She'd crossed the street and was directly below Karl's window on the opposite side of the street when she stopped, reined in her dog, then turned and gave the young man following her an eloquent middle finger. The young man replied something, and though his words were unintelligible, Karl could hear his pleading tone. Promptly, the young woman replied, "Get the hell away from me," quite loudly.
Karl stepped back from the window, suddenly aware he was dressed only in a pair of flannel boxer shorts. He was certain the young woman wasn't in any danger; she had a forbidding mouth and the dog, after all, but he was reluctant to turn away and head into the bath for his shower until he witnessed the completion of the little scene that had seriously compromised his morning's satisfaction with his view and neighborhood.
The young man stumbled on the curb as he neared the woman, who was waiting for him now, and she lifted her face and laughed. In the harsh yellow streetlight, Karl realized she wasn't as young as he'd supposed; in fact, she was nearer to his age than to the young man's. As the guy, not really much older than a teenager, collected himself, the woman shouted, "I'm sick of you, Sean. You need to go home, pack your shit, and get out. You've been my responsibility long enough and I've had it. Grow up!"
"Aw, Mom ... can't we talk about this back home? Look at us. We look like an episode of COPS out here. I said I was sorry. Jeez."
For a moment, the woman paused and looked around. Suddenly aware of her deshabille, she used her free hand to gather her coat tighter around her and shook her head in disgust. Without another word, she steered the hulk of a dog around and walked with renewed dignity back in the direction she had come. The hapless Sean followed along well behind.
Karl was amused but also somewhat wearied by the exchange. He was very uncomfortable with unseemly emotional outbursts—a gift of his Swedish mother's restraint.
"What was that all about?" Caroline asked distinctly in the room's quiet.
"Did they wake you?" Karl answered gently.
"No, actually it was your burst of imagination. I've been awake for a while now," she replied as she threw back the covers and stretched.
"I'm sorry, Caro. Was I very noisy?"
Caroline chuckled. "Not at all. After all these years I know the morning muse won't be denied. I was just on my way back to the most wonderful dream, and then I heard all that noise outside. Who on earth was it?"
It was Karl's turn to chuckle. "I believe the correct term is 'white trash.'"
Caroline drew up into a fetal position and yawned. "White trash? On Belgravia Street?"
Karl made his way to her side of the bed and stroked her hair. "Ah, just remember this is Gary, not London. I believe the quote goes something like, 'The white trash you shall have with you always.'"
Caroline reached to take his hand and squeezed it. "I think the quote actually goes, 'The poor ye shall have with you always.' What time is it?"
"Only half past four. Nowhere near time for you to get up."
"I could make you coffee."
Karl leaned down to kiss her and said, "No, you rest a little longer. I'll start coffee. Then I'll email this idea off to Barry at the office and take a shower. When I'm done, we'll go down together." The smell of her, still sweet from the day before, was undercut by the scent of a night of sweat that was particularly feminine and appealing. Caroline was menopausal, and Karl sympathetically believed her body's internal thermometer was as erratic as the stock market.
"Please. I want to spend some time with you before you take off this morning," Caroline mumbled.
"Sleep some more, darling. There's plenty of time."
In reply, Caroline smiled with her eyes already closed.
Feeling the chill, Karl pulled on the sweatshirt he'd worn the night before, then drew the bedcovers over Caroline's drowsy form before he stepped into the bathroom and closed the door quietly behind him. He was amused to find himself definitely, but not committedly, aroused. Rather than fight the hesitation and false starts his prostate and semierection would impose on a good, long pee, he simply sat down on the toilet to relieve himself, telling himself vainly that it was only to keep from interfering with Caroline's sleep once again.
Postponing the trip downstairs to make coffee, he regarded himself in the mirror after he finished. Though he had his father's dark hair, his facial hair's growth patterns displayed his mother's genes: his day-old beard was darkest over his upper lip, beside his mouth, and over his chin. This gave him the look of a dog with a dark, friendly muzzle. For a moment he contemplated just letting it go for a couple of days, for God's sake. Facial hair styles were all the rage with the young men in his office.
At fifty-two, he was well beyond trendy facial hair, but the thought of it made him feel as manly and suddenly virile as his semierection and trim waist had done earlier. Karl remained a dedicated swimmer, even these days, when work tried its best to intrude and the will to make his way to the health club flagged. Still, it was a sense of ingrained duty rather than vanity that kept him from giving up and letting himself go long after his contemporaries had resigned themselves to respectable guts and prosperous jowls. At his mother's insistence, and with his father's stern support, Karl had been swimming daily since he was four years old. Forty-eight years later, he could not erase that parental programming.
He gave himself a smile in the mirror and suppressed his urge to go out scruffy with a proper shave from his electric razor. The rest of his ablutions he decided to leave until after he sent his marvelous idea off to Barry and had some good, strong coffee.
As quietly as he could, he retrieved his pencil and legal pad from the bedroom, and then found his way in the dark to the kitchen on the floor below. On his way down he noted the staircase already had a signature squeak, and he smiled to himself when he heard it. Though he and Caroline had been in residence for not quite a year, he was pleased that his familiarity with their new home had grown to the point that he could navigate it in the dark, with its peculiar sounds guiding him along.
In the kitchen, Karl turned on the lights first and the radio second, beginning the morning routine that he loved. He listened to the last of public radio's late-night programming give way to the morning's NPR news while he fed water and ground coffee to the expensive coffeemaker Melanie had presented to her parents on her return home from Europe the summer before. Fresh from her immersion in French and Italian culture, she'd insisted Karl and Caroline needed a decent cup of coffee in the mornings and throughout the day as they wished. The efficient machine boasted a stainless-steel carafe for pots of coffee as well as separate espresso and milk-steaming tubes, nozzles, and attachments. The gift and the thought pleased Karl immensely.
With the coffeemaker wheezing and steaming, Karl settled himself at the table with his pad and pencil before him. Reaching a hand under his glasses, he lifted the frames from the bridge of his nose with one finger and rubbed the sleep from his eyes with another. Unbidden, the sight of the improbable mother and son's little drama out on the sidewalk came to mind. Karl supposed other people took such family dramas in stride, but to him they seemed untidy and unseemly. He could no more imagine himself and Melanie half dressed and loudly yelling out in the predawn street than he could picture himself wandering around with a trendy unshaven face.
Karl didn't like problems without rational, solid solutions. Emotional problems were exactly that. He didn't come from a family that loudly argued, or left festering things unsaid only to erupt with ugly recriminations later on. Karl dropped his hand from his face and stared with newly clear eyes through his kitchen window to the still-sleeping backs of the town houses across the narrow yards. He had to admit that his aversion to family woes was exactly why he felt a thin skin of dread spread over this trip south to see his parents and his brother.
There had been something unexpectedly needy in his father's usually imperious tone when he had called the previous week. His father hadn't wheedled or tried to make him feel guilty about not visiting over Christmas—that wasn't it. On the whole, he had been his usual self, firmly suggesting that Karl, along with Caroline and Melanie, needed to come for a visit as soon as possible.
It was the taut "as soon as possible" that needled Karl. His father didn't elaborate on his reasons for the urgent request for a visit, and Karl didn't ask. The inference was as evocative as the sketch Karl had done of his waking idea, now lying before him on the kitchen table. Karl sensed with dread that there was something much less concrete, more emotional behind this visit.
In that understanding, Karl was much like his father. There had never been a need for anything unsaid, but fraught with meaning, between the two of them. Both engineers, neither of them were inclined toward large pronouncements when it came to things closest to their hearts. They understood each other implicitly.
Excerpted from The Beloved Son by Jay Quinn. Copyright © 2008 Jay Quinn. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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