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Nov 26, 2020

Fiction

  Jason Packer leaned forward, finger hovering over his keyboard mouse, and hesitated. 

  The meeting was due to start in a few minutes, but he was having a hard time clicking on the link that would connect him to his family and likely seal this fate. He pulled his hand away and leaned back in his chair, staring at the cursor on the monitor and rehearsing, again, the speech he planned to make.

  Packer family gatherings were strained under the best of conditions, even actual holidays like Independence Day and Thanksgiving were fraught with emotion packed minefields that could lead the unwary into holiday hell, but today was a Packer specific celebration, which was worse. COS Day was the brainchild of his mother, Lydia Packer who initiated Celebrate Our Success Day decades earlier when the family business was brand new and still struggling for survival. Lydia Packer was both superstitious and religious; she felt the practice of gathering, annually, for the purpose of expressing gratitude for the family’s ability to keep the animals fed, grow their customer base and avoid the shame of Past Due and Overdraft notices was vital to the company’s continued success. Thanksgiving Day, she proclaimed at the start of every COS Day gathering, was for giving thanks for all the other good things in life. COS Day was for acknowledging individual family contributions and sharing a word of appreciation for the blessings bestowed on Packer Products.

  COS Day came along before Jason did and, as a kid, he was surprised when he realized other families didn’t add personal holiday celebrations to the standard national line-up of Christmas and New Years and the like.  Knowing that his family was unique added to his enjoyment of those early COS Day celebrations. In those early days, talk of the business was discouraged, by Lydia, with lighthearted reminders that even the good Lord rested on the Sabbath, so the Parkers should feel free to use COS Day as an excuse to step away from the demands of overseeing all but the most pressing of business related needs.  But as the years wore on, the challenges of managing their growing enterprise seeped into every day of the year, and COS Day morphed from a unique and fun family celebration into something that more closely resembled an annual state of the business meeting. As these adjustments occurred, Jason liked this family holiday less and less. Bored by time spent rehashing Corporate Goals, reviewing financials and discussing concerns in need of addressing, in his mid-teens, he dared to dream that there might come a day when he would not have to think much, if at all, about hogs and advertising, and butchering and shipping—dreams he kept strictly to himself.

  Jason was happy that the business had thrived, happy for his parents and extended family and accepted, despite fleeting teen visions of rebellion, that he would step up to take his place when the time came. But now…

  Jason Packard was, typically, a mildly nervous young man but this year, his anxiety level had reached new heights. This year, the rubber was going to meet the road. This year the Packer family spotlight would shine directly on him, and he expected it would burn him to a crisp.   He was due to graduate from college in just a few months, and his parents were going to use this year’s Celebrate Our Success Day to reveal, to the family, the role that had been developed for their only son.

  While his classmates contemplated the paths their futures would take, following graduation day, Jason was obsessed over how each member of his family was going to react to his plans.  His words were likely to be met with stunned silence, a rarity in the Packer family. Snickers and forced laughter would follow, along with exclamations of, “That was a good one.” or “Real funny, little brother.” Once reality set in, there would be outraged tears and expressions of righteous anger.  When it was clear that he would not be dissuaded from his chosen course, Jason Winston Packer would find himself cast in the role of spoiler, dissenter, ungrateful son, Benedict Arnold.

  Because Jason Packer had no intention of cramming himself into the family mold that did not suit his interests or his needs, he fully expected to be disowned by most of the people he loved.

  He thought about Aunt Jeanine who grumbled and swore as she toiled over the company payroll every week. Everyone who worked at Packer Productions knew better than to go near Ms. Jeanine’s office on a Thursday afternoon. One hapless new hire had wandered down there at 3 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon, meaning to ask her a question, and stumbled from the building, hand cupped to an ear that had been dealt a stunning blow by a hurled stapler. The poor fellow had never returned. Jeanine had mailed him his only company paycheck, along with a terse note about the impropriety of quitting a job without giving proper notice and notice that he had been docked for a broken stapler.

  Jason thought about Aunt Nell, whose acceptance of a position in the family business had always been a mystery to him. Aunt Nell was rumored to have been one of the best caricature artists for miles around. Word was she could draw anyone or anything, and she had an uncanny ability to capture, and enhance, the tiniest details. Aunt Nell took on the role of Packer Purchasing agent within days of graduating from college with a degree in Art and, to his knowledge, she never picked up a sketch pad or charcoal pencil again once she stepped foot inside the offices of Parker Products. Jason could not recall seeing his Aunt Nell smile often, and it didn’t take a genius to see that the woman’s spiky demeanor could be attributed directly to her feelings about her life’s work.

  Packer Products had provided the family with a decent enough life, financially, but Jason had watched his mother and father work themselves nearly to death, agonizing over people and situations that were out of their control, and worrying over holding on to the business they’d built from scratch each time operating costs rose and profits fell.

  Jason did not want to wind up like his parents, or his sisters or his Aunts. During the weeks leading up to this year’s Celebrate Our Success Day, he’d struggled to keep his mind on his studies, as his thoughts alternated between reviews of past family gatherings and visions of his future. He recalled that Sadie, the eldest of the Packer children, announced her intent to assume management of the company’s Human Resources Department, on the day she graduated from college. Sadie’s enthusiasm for the family business brought their mother to tears and, whether intentional or not, set the tone for future COS Days. When she married, Sadie’s husband, Ben, assumed the role of family IT department a job well suited to this reclusive man his sister continued to love and support through thick and thin.  

  As Patsy, the middle child night owl, approached graduation, she made clear that she had no intention of marrying anyone, ever, which caused a near catastrophic shift within the family structure as folks expressed opinions on one side of the issue or the other. However, by the time COS Day rolled around, any rifts caused by Patsy’s unconventional ideas had been smoothed over and Patsy was assigned the task of managing the second shift staff, which accommodated Patsy’s propensity for sleeping in and avoiding large groups of people.

  Patsy surprised the family, the next year, by announcing her engagement to Ralph, an easy-going, soft spoken fellow who worked second shift and displayed a surprising talent for butchery. Ralph fit, nicely, into the Packer family.

  Aunt Nell’s twin boys, Ted and Fred, stepped into roles developed for them, though neither seemed much interested in distinguishing themselves in the business of pork production, but they were family, after all, so no one seemed to care much so long as they lumbered along.

  Aunt Jeanine’s no-good husband, Art, held a minor role in management, until the day he walked out of Jeanine’s life and cemented his status as non-entity within the family.

   With Jason’s pending graduation, the moment of truth could be avoided no longer. Today his parents would reveal his destiny and he would break their hearts. He was about to graduate with a degree in business, so it would come as no surprise that he would be expected to train for the role of CEO of the family business, thus paving the way for his parents’ retirement. The problem was he could not…would not spend his life working at raising pigs destined to be slaughtered, butchered, packaged, frozen and shipped to Packer Products customers who swore nothing less than a Packer pork was suitable feed for their families. Jason was not sure which part of his carefully prepared speech would be more shocking to his family unit, and more likely to result in his being ejected from the Packer family and joining his former Uncle Art in exile, the fact that he would not be joining the family business, or the fact that he had become a vegetarian. He had converted to the vegetarian lifestyle eight months earlier and had never felt better…happier…more satisfied. He hadn’t planned on renouncing his family’s choices, but college life had opened new doors for him…doors apparently, his sister had failed to notice or had resisted stepping through.       

  Admittedly, his conversion had not been self-directed, had not resulted from a sudden, blinding revelation regarding animal rights. He stopped eating meat because he wanted to date Carly Fisher, the smart, outspoken, passionate English major he’d mooned over for nearly six months before he worked up the courage to approach her and ask her out.  

  He’d been amazed when she accepted his invitation to join him for dinner, and had been chastened when she spent a full twenty minutes railing at him for suggesting that he treat her to dinner at a local steak house. She’d been angered by his suggestion that he “treat” her and appalled by his suggestion that they go to a place that exploited the untimely death of innocent animals. In the end, they spent their first date weaving through the stalls of a farmer’s market and ended the date in her tiny off-campus apartment where she cooked him a dinner comprised entirely of vegetables she’d selected that afternoon. He had never eaten anything so heavenly. Within weeks of that first date, his fate was sealed. He adopted the vegetarian lifestyle because he’d fallen in love with the die-hard, unapologetic, uncompromising vegetarian who made it crystal clear that she could not care for a man who propagated the savagery of the eating of dead animals.   He intended to build a future with Carly Fisher, which would mean rejecting the path his family expected him to take and forging a course, with Carly at his side. A path that, almost certainly would lead him away from the family he loved. Well, what was done was done. He loved Carly and would not be dissuaded from the choices he’d made.

  Jason took a deep breath and double-clicked on the link his mother had e-mailed to him. It was time to take a leap of faith.

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