Until Regrets Replace Dreams

Submitted into Contest #89 in response to: Start your story with an ending and work backward toward the beginning.... view prompt

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Coming of Age American Drama

“Happy Birthday to you—” sang the small crowd of familiar faces, clapping and cheering. Teary-eyed, Richard looked around the room with much appreciation at those who were much beloved, those who were tolerated, and those who were somewhere in between. 

Thank you, he whispered. Someone handed him his youngest grandchild. He held the infant like a practiced father and stepfather and grandfather. Cameras flashed and women ooh-ed and aah-ed. He smiled at his second wife, the one who seemed to bring peace to the valley of the shadow of death. She had restored so much of what had been lost over the decades. He reached out and squeezed her hand.  

Turning 80 should feel more significant, Richard thought. I still feel like a little kid driving a tractor sometimes. He nuzzled the placid babe in his arms. Precious child, he whispered to himself. How much babies and puppies smelled the same—like spring, like promises of better days. Richard hoped this child would know him as just a doting grandfather. 

There was so much of his past he’d prefer was buried alongside him. 

It had been 20 years since he walked out of the Montana State Prison. On that day, there were no songs, no noisemakers, no wife, and no one to pick him up. He wasn’t a hardened criminal, but he also had no forgiveness deposited in his personal bank account. He never thought he needed any. He had been a loner for too long, and loners don’t care for much or ask for anything. But standing there in the parking lot, he was no longer a loner. He was alone. The emptiness in the parking lot echoed the emptiness in his soul. This day was an end and a beginning, though. He was excited about both.

It had been 40 years since Richard had stood in a courtroom, embarrassed to have his sons watch their father be convicted of embezzlement and fraud. Would they ever understand how their mother desperately needed the funds he stole? She had been the love of his life, but decades of her erratic behavior had driven both their tenuous marriage and his drywall business into the ground. 

At her worst, she used the boys as pawns in what was essentially an emotional blackmail scheme. She controlled Richard through the children. As she was prone to inventing wild tales, he was always afraid of what she would tell the boys. 

The truth was bad enough. 

Lying wasn’t his wife’s only compulsion. If she wasn’t shopping to satisfy some unsatisfiable need, she was eating. If she wasn’t binging and purging, she was gambling at the casinos on the Indian reservations. If she didn’t have money to gamble, she found strange companions in the corners of seedy bars.

He watched her slip away into a life that neither one of them had bargained for. 

It hadn’t always been that way. She hadn’t always been that way. In the darkest place in his heart of hearts, Richard knew the underlying fault was his. 

Working a 40-hour job just to make ends meet wasn’t his dream, but he had the love of his life who chose to take his last name. He had three sons who loved their father and the time they spent on his evenings and weekends off.  He had a comfortable house with an affordable mortgage. However, Richard wanted more. So he started the drywall business. His 40-hour work week quickly doubled and then tripled. Sometimes he slept in his office.  

He saw what was happening to his kids, growing up without a dad, getting into trouble, jockeying for his time and attention. He did what he could as an absentee father. 

But his wife felt his absence most of all. Although there was more money to spend, it didn’t fill the cankering toll his business took on their family. With a new mall in town and a casino about to open, he watched his wife turn her small desires into raging compulsions. Instead of a few pairs of shoes, she had dozens. Things were thrown out with the price tags still one them.

The less and less she shared with Richard, the more and more grew her desire to consume. What she consumed grew voraciously, from a glass of wine to all day drinking, from buying a few cute throw pillows to renovating bathrooms, from flirting with the bagboy at the grocery to bringing home strange men into their bed.

The worst of it was that Richard didn’t care.  

It has been 60 years since Richard first saw his first wife for the first time. She had been bookish, cloistered in a neighborhood library. She had dreamed of college, but there was no money and no precedent in her family for a woman to attend. Instead, she quenched her intellectual curiosity in the public library, lost in the stacks, roaming from shelf to shelf. 

Richard only entered the library, looking for a payphone to call his father. The truck had broken down again; he needed a ride. Love at first sight is something only found in fairy tales, yet also with Richard and Jessica. Richard never called his father. He forgot everything but his conversation with the beautiful girl who was almost too shy to talk to him.

Ironically, it was Richard who many thought would never find love. To say he was underdeveloped for his age when he entered high school would be a huge understatement. Richard didn’t crack the five foot mark or the 100-pound barrier as a freshman. That fact and the added detriment of chronic acne and braces made love seem impossible for the boy everyone derisively called “Dick the dick.” And if anyone was destined to die alone, it was definitely “Dick the dick,” as he came to be well-known for his meanspirited truculence. 

All Dick wanted to do was fight. Instead of being humbled by his physical shortcomings, he let his schoolmates’ teasing get to him, becoming as ornery as the geese on his grandparent’s farm. He’d forgotten everything that his grandfather had carefully tried to tell him before he passed away. 

It had been 70 years since Richard’s grandfather decided that he was old enough to drive the combine harvester out in the fields. At ten years old, Richard thought his grandfather hung the moon, listened to his every pearl of wisdom, promising his grandfather a hundred different things that he’d forget over the decades. But the first day of driving the huge, intimidating farm machinery out among the corn rows showed a level of trust Richard had never experienced before. That day was memorable, too, for it was his first experience with a devastating loss.

He’d been doing well, a young boy propped up in the driver’s seat. He could see the expanse of the field. His grandfather waved to him, calling out something among the noise. Richard couldn’t hear exactly what he said, so proud of what he was accomplishing. It wasn’t until he saw his grandfather’s wild gestures and heard a familiar bark of his dog cut short that Richard knew something terrible had happened. 

It was an accident, his grandfather assured him as they buried the hound among a small grove of trees. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. That doesn’t mean good people should go bad. 

It had been 75 years since Richard attended his own grandfather’s 80th birthday party. As a little boy, he was dazzled by all the people who hugged him. He wondered at the sea of candles on the huge sheet cake, assorted relatives he barely knew singing “Happy Birthday.” 

After Richard ate a large piece of birthday cake, his grandfather took him aside and told him something he would never forget. “You are my youngest grandchild, probably my last,” his grandfather said in a hushed tone. “You remind me of me. My life was hard and far from perfect, but as I sit here not far from the end, I know it was all worth it—both the good and the bad.”  He hugged his youngest grandson, then added words which imprinted on Richard’s soul: “Your life matters. You will endure hard times, but they will make you strong.”

Starting kindergarten in the fall, five-year-old Richard had no idea what life held in store for him. But he was ready for it, and he was ready for a second piece of cake.

April 14, 2021 18:14

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5 comments

Thom Brodkin
18:31 Apr 14, 2021

Christina you never disappoint. I look forward to your stories every week. Bravo!

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9 P🎈
10:11 Apr 16, 2021

Hi ya............Title's so touching and the story's great too.............Good Work Christina👍👍 Would you like to read my stories? 😊

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14:33 Apr 16, 2021

I'd be happy to, I'll get over as soon as I can.

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Deidra Lovegren
18:16 Apr 14, 2021

Heart-felt and moving. Grandpa Richard deserves a nice quiet life after all that drama...

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05:04 May 09, 2021

Just lovely.

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