“You wanna do something fun?” Jess asked.
Knowing her tone, Ed replied. “Not really.”
“Will you please finish unpacking the office for me today?”
“It’s not like I’m doing anything else, babe.”
“I still like having manners, Sarge.”
1st Sergeant Edwin Lopez just retired from a 21-year career in the Army. His wife, Jessica took a job that landed them in Denver. Her high 6-figure salary made his choice to leave the Armed Forces that much easier. Their 3 kids also enjoyed having dad around a lot more.
“Do you have the paperwork completed for the kids’ enrollment?”
He smiled, “Yup.”
She was letting go of her domestic goddess mind frame and was worried that there was something she was forgetting. She was scrambling around the bedroom trying to get ready for her first day.
They made it work over the past 18 years. They met while he was two years into his military career and she was in college, working on her business degree. He deployed several times and she worked while running the house. She supported him while he was gone and when he was home, he stayed present, 100%.
“How about the medical forms?”
Now at 41, he was still young enough to begin a second career but wanted to give his wife a chance to further hers.
“Michael and Ben need their allergy medicine before they go outside or else you might need to take them to the doctor and we don’t have a doctor here yet so then you’d have to find one or take them to the emergency room or…”
“I got it J, I’m not a doctor but I still learned a few things in the last 20 years.” He said, as he hugged her, trying to settle her neurotic state. “Everything will be done by the time you get home.”
She hugged him back, her head pressed against his chest. She heard his heartbeat and felt his strength as he wrapped his arms around her. That always calmed her down.
“I’m sorry. I’m just excited that you’re finally here and that we’re in a new place and I’m going to work full-time, feels like a new start. I’m just not used to you being home yet,”
“I know, J. It’s going to take time, then this will start feeling like how home should be.” He kissed her and headed downstairs to check on the kids.
The couple had a thirteen-year-old daughter, Victoria and two twin boys, Michael, and Ben. The twins were eight and a handful but Ed didn’t want a boring life anyway.
The lower level had boxes scattered all over the place. Victoria was on the couch and the boys were watching cartoons, wrestling on the floor.
“Hey guys be careful.” He told them, half serious but knowing how brothers are. “Hey Vicky… What are you doing baby?”
“Hey dad. I’m texting with my friends back in San Antonio.”
“Are you feeling sad?”
“Yeah. But I know we had to go. Mom said this was a fresh start for us. Now that you’re home, we can actually make like, real family memories.”
“That’s right. This is going to be a big change for all of us. But a good one. Focus on the 50-meter targets.”
“When you shoot in the Army, every target is 50-meters from one to the next. You need to focus on the target in front of you before aiming for the next one.”
“So, like ‘baby steps?’”
Ben jumped onto the couch and turned around to body slam his brother. Ed caught him mid-air and with one swoop, put him on his shoulders. “Now who wants breakfast?”
All three kids yelled, “I do!” and made their way to the kitchen.
Jess came down while they were eating and was handed a cup of coffee the way she likes it, two Splenda and a dash of milk.
Looking at the kids and the great view of the Rocky Mountains from the kitchen she asked, “Will you wait for me for the school’s open house?”
“Youuuu want me to go to the open house?” He asked.
She took a sip and raised an eyebrow, “Well yeah, Sarge, you need to be involved with the school. Meet the other parents and join the PTO or whatever they have.”
Ed cringed. But the eyebrow was the first warning. After the eyebrow, a few more warnings, then he paid the price.
“Can’t wait.” He said as he raised his mug to his face, taking a slow sip, trying to hide his disdain.
She put her cup in the sink, “I bet.” She grabbed her keys and purse, kissed her family goodbye, then left.
That night, they arrived at the school after dinner, the fall evening had a cool breeze that blew leaves over the pine needles that littered the ground. They entered the double doors to the school’s cafe-gym-atorium.
There were people everywhere. They stopped and watched a herd of people moving around the room looking at tables with information about organizations and programs offered during the year. There was also a flow of people going in and out of the west doors to a corridor that led to the school classrooms.
Ed took note of everything. Despite being in a safe environment, he made a mental note of the doors, where people were standing, fire exits, and mentally replayed the routes to and from the car. His mind automatically did this whenever he was somewhere new. Jess saw him and hugged his arm. “You’re okay Sarge.”
She led him towards the crowds of people. Ed heard the loud laughter and raised voices vying for attention that some of the attendees were making. Conversations about law, finances, business deals, politics, and gossip rang in his ears. Jess heard it too and felt him tense up.
“I know. But these people don’t know much else and this is a top school in the state. Success brings money which brings ‘first world problems.’ Take it for what it is.”
Ed breathed. He knew she was right and began to ignore the chatter.
“Hey Hon, you must be new.”
Ed turned to see an older lady going up to Jess.
“Yes, you must be Sue, the front office guru. I’m Jess and this is my husband Ed.”
Ed shook her hand and looked in her eyes; immediately, he felt the warmth of a familiar person. It brought him some comfort. He learned to read people and was glad that she was the first person that he met tonight.
“Ohh, that’s right! We’ve been speaking for weeks over the phone! Did ya bring the rest of the paperwork for the enrollment, Hon?”
Ed held up the manilla envelope, “Got it right here.”
“I’ll take that then Ed, Thanks Hon.” He handed her the envelope and she scooted away.
“She’s nice.” He told Jess as they made their way around the tables.
“Oh, I love her… Did you get a chance to check out the school online?”
He regurgitated what he learned. “Private school, built in 1976. Currently has 1,024 students, grades going from Kindergarten through 12th grade...”
“Okay, okay Sarge, what do you think about getting the kids into any programs?”
“Definitely wrestling for the boys. Probably art or literature clubs for Victoria.”
“I agree, I’m gonna go meet some other moms. You look around. We’ll go meet the teachers in a few minutes. Byeeee”
“No, I…*sigh*” Jess disappeared faster than he could sigh. But he knew he had to let go of her as his anchor. Joining the local community would let him assimilate to civilian life again.
Ed looked at the tables and saw the parent-teacher organization (PTO) sign. “That seems familiar and safe.” He saw a flyer for a meeting and a clipboard to sign up. There were only women on the list and he thought it weird at first, but it made sense. The women were housewives and dads were the breadwinners, especially here. He signed his name then grabbed a flyer.
“Hey bro, that’s for the chicks.”
Ed turned around and there were three guys looking at him with red Solo cups in hand wearing pastel-colored polos and sweaters. They looked like they were about to break out in song and dance.
“I’m sorry?” Replied Ed.
“PTO. That’s where the moms go.”
“But it says ‘parent’-teacher organization. Dads don’t do anything here?”
“’Course we do! We’re in the Golfer’s Society. Do you play?”
“Oh… well that’s alright. We run some fundraisers and help put on parties for the school if you’re interested.”
“I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t.”
“Right on, I’m Tucker, you can call me ‘T-Dawg.’”
“Cool, well Ed, sign in here and we’ll give you a ring this week. Our first meeting should be Friday or Saturday.”
Ed turned around and saw Jess standing by the school corridor. He made his way over. “Hey Jess, how’d it go?”
“It was good. I think I found my mom crew. I got the feeling that some moms don’t like new people much. How about you? I saw you talking to those dads.”
He replied, “We’ll see…” as they walked into the school building.
The following week, Ed continued doing his domestic duties as the keeper of the house. He missed his friends and serving a greater purpose. Keeping his family safe, loved, and protected was no chore but it was a given; a given in-addition-to whatever else would occupy his day.
Ed was sitting on the bed reading that night when Jess walked in.
“Hey J, how was your day?”
“Pretty good, they’ve had me hit the ground running since last week but I’ve already gotten a hold of production and am putting in good numbers for the quarter. You?”
“Good, kids’ day was good. They’re doing homework now. Dinner is in the oven for you.”
“Awesome, I said a quick ‘hi’ but I’m gonna jump in the shower first.”
Ed followed her in the bathroom and stood at the doorway. He admired her figure as she undressed but he was bothered by his thoughts. She turned around with a smile, feeling his presence, but stopped when she saw him. After 18 years together, she knew him inside and out.
“What’s wrong?” She asked.
“Victoria was upset earlier. The ‘popular’ girls are excluding her from some things. She has already found her group but it wasn’t like San Antonio, where everyone ran together. There are more cliques here. The boys also have something similar going on but not as bad.”
You could damn near do whatever you want to Ed, he didn’t care if you liked him or being in a crowd much. He felt he had all the friends he needed, they were in the trenches with him, served with him and he preferred their company. But to know his kids don’t have that camaraderie yet and are going through a rough social situation this early in life hit him hard.
“Well, Sarge, girls are worse than boys. Again, the school has money, with money there’s a hierarchy of families. But the money also means a higher likelihood that the school is better. I’ll talk to her, girl-to-girl.”
“I know. But… you know.”
“I do… Did the Golfer’s Society call you for the meeting yet?”
“No. That’s another thing. It was this past weekend, allegedly. How am I supposed to help and be involved if they don’t let me?”
“How about the PTO?”
“No. Their meeting is scheduled for tomorrow morning though.”
“Are you going to that? I know ‘T-Dawg’ said it was ‘Only chicks bro!’ But it’s a place to start.”
“I don’t know.”
“C’mon Sarge! Don’t be afraid of some women with high limit credit cards! You’ve been in gunfights with the Taliban while treating wounds! This is a piece of cake!”
“That’s the spirit!” Jess turned him around and smacked his butt out of the bathroom.
The next morning Ed went to the room listed on the flyer for the PTO meeting. When he walked in, he heard the proverbial record scratching followed by pin dropping silence. The conversations that echoed outside the room to the hall immediately stopped and all heads turned toward the door.
He was the only male in the room. He looked around and saw pastel colors, yoga pants and primped up hair. There was a giant wooden oval conference table in the middle and a smaller end table with refreshments to the side. Clusters of women were scattered all around the room.
“Hi! You must be Edwin!” A mom made a beeline from the back of the room. “I’m Tracy. You met my husband, Tucker, last week.”
“Hi, I did.”
“Well, if you’d like you can grab something to drink and have a seat, we’ll get started in a minute.”
Ed sat down as the meeting started. He listened to the events going on, with the major event being The Gala in a month. He felt the tension, but still took notes and thought of ways to help. At the end of the meeting Tracy came with a couple of other moms to talk to him.
“Ed, this is Stephanie and Megan. Their kids go here too. How did you like the meeting?”
“Oh, it was great. Really informative. I’ve already thought of ways I can jump in and lend a hand.”
Tracy’s face immediately went from genuine-smile to bothered-smile. “That’s great… You know Tucker… my husband… he runs the Golfer’s Society and they kind of work with us with these things. You know, together but separate. You might be able to get your ideas to work better over there.”
Just then, Ed felt his phone vibrate. He pulled it out and looked at a message from a local number that read, “Hey Ed, T-Dawg here. Sorry we missed you at the meeting this weekend. We’re going to get together soon though. I’ll call you.”
Ed looked up at the three women still plastered with awkward smiles. “Right.” He turned around and walked out.
As he made his way back home, he realized Tracy sent Tucker a message about him during the meeting and got the text soon after. “So, this is what the kids are going through.”
He was cleaning rooms later in the day and finished the last of the unpacking when he heard his phone ring. He looked at the ID and laughed, “Miller.” Captain Miller was 8 years his junior, but as his commanding officer, outranked him.
“Hey Miller, what the hell are you bothering me for?”
“Take it easy old man. I was just calling to see how the beaches and mai-tais were treating you… What happened to ‘sir?’ Did you already lose your military bearing?”
“I’m retired, remember? You need to respect your elders.”
“I’m just jealous that’s all. Are you holding up alright? How’s the family?”
“Everyone’s good, Jess sends her love. Civilian life is kind of fucked Cap’. Stay in as long as you can.”
“Sorry to hear. Just remember why you left. Your family needs you Sarge. Once you find your footing, it’ll be all good. 50-meter targets.”
They spent the next hour catching up and reliving the past. It was exactly the break Ed needed to regroup and try again.
On Friday night Ed met up with the Society at the Golden Tavern, a hipster dive bar with trendy beer and bourbon. As he ordered his drink, Tucker called him from across the bar and he made his way over.
“Ed, this is Steve, Fred and Mark. They’re also part of the Golfer’s Society.”
Ed shook hands as the waitress brought him his drink.
“This is where you all have your meetings?”
“Sometimes,” Tucker replied. “Or at the Shady Lady.” He turned and laughed with his buddies.
Strip club… Geez... Ed thought to himself. “So, I thought of a few ideas for upcoming events…”
Steve cut him off, “How was that meeting? I heard you were the only guy there.”
Ed tried to hide his annoyance. He said, “I’m just trying to help out where I can.”
Fred poked in, “Don’t worry, next time I bet they’ll let you help bake some cookies for us.”
“…or you can hand us tools while we work.” Jabbed Mark.
The four giggled and took a drink.
Tucker spoke up, “Hey man, we’re just goofin’. Don’t get all PMS-y on us.”
Ed slammed his drink, “Like I said, I’ll help out wherever I can. So, this Gala that’s going on…”
Tucker interrupted again, “Look man, you seem like a nice guy. I’m sure there’s something you can do later. Our wives don’t have to work. The school is their business. We’re at the office all day, pullin’ in the dough. The girls want us to be part of what they’re doing; so, we formed this thing where we hang out away from home and take the edge off, doing guy shit. For events, we order some food, some booze, set up a few tables, and we look like heroes. So fuckin’ relax bro.”
Tucker turned his back on Ed and closed the circle. Ed balled his fist but thought of his kids and how kicking this guy’s ass would come back and affect them and the new life they were trying to start. 20 years of military fighting trained him well but 15 years of military leadership taught him to be better.
He grabbed his glass and returned it to the bar, then left.
Ed sat outside his home. Conflicted by 20 years of how to behave and live as a decent person. He watched his family through the window and thought, “People will always be ‘people.’ Good or bad, I know how they are. I need to keep doing the best I can for the family. 50-meter targets.” And he went inside.