The Next Generation
Copyright© 2010 by Wes Boyd
There was to be a quiz the next day, so Ken was deep in his Agricultural Marketing textbook. He'd thought the subject was fairly simple, and he had been in for a rude shock. The whole marketing system almost defined the concept of the lack of a system. Never the less, he'd found it easier going than he'd expected when he had first leafed through the thing; his mid-term grade had proven that he was understanding the course, if not the system.
A guy whose name Ken had never learned stuck his head in the door. "Sorensen?"
"You've got a phone call."
Ken put down the book and went down the hall to the pay phone. It was Judy again -- he'd expected it -- and she was in tears again, which had become all too usual. "Can we go somewhere? Anywhere?" she pleaded.
Oh, good grief, not again! "Sure, I'll be over in a few minutes," he said.
"I'll be waiting downstairs, she told him glumly.
Ken went back to his room and closed his book, promising himself to skim his notes over breakfast in the morning. He shook his head; this was getting ridiculous.
The Sunbird had to be parked a long way away from the dorm, and the autumn air was biting as he walked across the campus. Most of the fallen leaves had been raked up, but there were still some to fall. Ken knew he should be looking forward to seeing Judy, but he knew he'd be hearing the latest episode of the same problem, and it made him yearn for the days of getting around Judy's mother.
Those jerks in the student housing office! It was obvious that they had to prove their incompetence to get hired! Some one of them had completely loused up their promise to find Judy a compatible roommate that could help with the problems of living at Western. Whoever the idiot was had reasoned that someone Judy already knew would be the best bet. Unfortunately, they had chosen Jennifer Savage.
Jennifer could be disarmingly nice to anyone she wanted to be nice to, but if she didn't have to impress anyone, she could be a monster. Ken and Judy had plenty of opportunities to witness that over the years. Unfortunately, Jennifer didn't have to impress Judy. The girls had been at each other's throats from the first minute they met at the dorm, and the fighting hadn't let up since.
And, it was obvious to Ken from the first that Judy wasn't winning. If Judy had thought that she was looked down on at high school for being a cripple, there was no doubt of it with her roommate.
It was still strange for Ken to have to unlock the Sunbird. He'd never had to lock a car at home, even in Willow Lake or Geneva. Here, even an old car like this wasn't safe, but he hoped that there was extra safety in that the hand controls would confound a potential thief.
It wasn't far to Judy's dorm as the crow flew, but the distance between them was filled with one-way streets running the wrong way. Ken had to go far out of his way to drive the few blocks.
If only those jackasses at the student housing office had the least bit of common sense, things would have been able to be worked out, but all Judy had gotten was the runaround. No, we can't find you another roommate. No, we can't let you change rooms for the rest of the year. No, you need to learn to deal with other people.
Ken had tried to do what he could to help, but he glumly knew he hadn't been much help. Those peabrains at the student housing office were doing their best to lose Judy as a student, and Ken had become more and more convinced that she wouldn't last out the semester. The only question he had in his mind was whether Judy was going to wrap an aluminum crutch around someone's neck before she left.
About the only hope he could see was to try to buck up Judy to get her to last out the semester, skip the next semester, and pick up after that without losing her grant. There was a problem with that, and he knew it. Judy would go home defeated, and would then give her mother eight months to work on her. She'd never be back, and Ken knew he might never be able to coax her out of the shell her mother would build around her.
Ken pulled up in front of the dorm lobby. Judy was waiting at the door, and came out when she saw the Sunbird drive up. Ken looked; she still had both crutches. Good.
Judy's eyes were still dripping as she slid into the car. "Let's just get away from this stinking place," she told him. "I don't care where. Just away."
His fiance -- for she had become that, thought there had been no formal announcement -- nodded. "Same old thing," she said. "She doesn't like being seen with a cripple. Doesn't like to be around one. Thinks they aren't good enough for people like her. I felt it from her all through school, but I am getting sick and tired of hearing her say it!"
Ken was at a loss for words. For a year and a half, he had tried to build this girl's ego up to something approaching normal, and now it was being destroyed. He reached for something -- anything -- to say. "Judy..."
"I'm beginning to think my mother was right," the distraught girl interrupted his attempt to speak. "Maybe I can't take handle the problems of looking after myself. Maybe I do need someone to look after me."
Ken bristled. Maybe a counter tantrum would work, for this evening, anyway. "Do you want me to get on your case, too?" he said, letting a little bit of his anger at Jennifer show through. "Keep talking like that and I will. We settled all that long ago."
"Well, it seemed right, then," Judy replied, quieting down a little. "I'm not so sure about now. I keep thinking I ought to go back home."
"Do that, and you'll lose me, too," Ken replied, angrily. "Not because I want to, or because you want to." He let his voice soften a little and continued, "But you and I both know it'll happen."
They rode on in silence. Ken drove aimlessly. All of a sudden, he realized he was on the road that would take them back to Willow Lake. Hurriedly, he turned at the first corner, onto a road that couldn't be recognized as taking them anywhere in particular. Eventually, the road turned into darkened countryside. In a field, Ken could see the floodlights of a big combine, harvesting corn. All of a sudden, he wished he were back home, driving the big new John Deere 8820 Tom had just picked up less than a month before. That thing could go through corn like grass through a mower.
That was no way to think, and Ken knew it. Still, by comparison things had seemed so simple the year before.
The lights of a truck stop loomed ahead. Ken slowed; no, there was a "Miller" sign in the window. All he needed on top of the problems Judy had was for her to freeze up from being around drinking, even the most casual kind. He twisted the handgrip to speed up, and felt Judy snuggle up to him, holding on for dear life, like he was the only hope she had left in the world. Maybe he was. If only there was something he could say, something he could do...
"No, don't think that!" he heard in a whisper from the vicinity of his shoulder.
"Um?" he said, as noncommittally as he could.
"Lori. Lori and Bob."
"Um?" Ken said, a bit more firmly.
"I was just thinking that Lori didn't like her roommate last year. Well, she found a way out."
"Didn't solve anything," Ken said. "It created more problems than it solved."
"Yeah," Judy said wistfully, "But she got a roommate she likes a whole lot more."
They drove on silently for a while. Ken finally saw another truck stop looming at the side of the road. He took a closer look: no beer sign. This is as good as any, he thought. Both of them were lost in thought as they went inside; they barely spoke to order Cokes. After a while, Ken mumbled, "It's too bad people have such dirty minds."
Judy perked up. She could see that an idea was forming in Ken's mind, but could also see he wasn't quite ready to let it out, yet. Maybe it needed some development. "What do you mean?"
"It's too bad that this isn't our little bay, where it was just you and me."
"That was nice," Judy agreed with him. "That was another world, where the two of us could run around for a whole week, and never wear clothes except when it got cold, and all as innocently as a couple of little kids."
"That's just what I mean," Ken said. "We lived together there so blissfully. It's too darn bad we can't do that here."
"That's another world," Judy shook her head. "That's a dream world. Sometimes dreams come true, but don't count on it."
"Well, I suppose it would be possible to rent a little apartment here in Athens, somewhere, and live on about what we spend on dorm payments."
"People do that here," Judy agreed. "But we can't. Up on the island, no one knew us, and no one knew what we were doing. If we tried to live together here, no matter how innocently, Jennifer would spread it all over Dohrman County for fun."
Ken looked out the window at a car passing by. It was something to look at. "Yeah," he agreed. "We'd catch it from everyone we know."
Judy nodded, adding, "And we'd deserve it, no matter how innocent we are."
They were silent again. Both of them were still thinking about how sweet their few days together on Isle Royale the previous summer had been. Not three months ago, and things had seemed like they had the world by the tail. Now, there seemed to be no way out of the problem.
Ken shook his head. The problems were so simple, really, but the solutions were so impossible that things seemed hopeless. Well, not hopeless, maybe. "There is one way we could get around that," he said.
"I don't think so," Judy said, shaking her head. "There's no way we could cover it up."
"There is," Ken said. "We could go out and rent an apartment. We'll be home over Thanksgiving. We could have a small family wedding."
Judy opened her mouth, and closed it again, Ken's last word reverberating in her skull.
When Ken had said he wanted to marry her, it was obviously off in the netherworld somewhere -- at least three years in the future. Now, he was talking about doing it right away! "Are you serious?" she asked, thinking he was just trying to pick up her spirits.
"I keep thinking about our week up in the cove, and how I would have liked to continue that. Other than moving way away from here, that's the only way I can see to pick up where we left off. Besides," he said, taking her hand and squeezing it hard, "I seem to recall we had some unfinished business from up there that we agreed to put off until such an occasion. I'm not sure I can wait three years or whatever it was we didn't agree on."
"No, Ken, no," she said, wishing she didn't have to say it. "We can't afford it."
Ken shook his head. "I think we can," he said. "We've got tuition covered, and I think it wouldn't cost us much more to live together than it costs us to live separately."
"But Ken," she said. "Are you sure you want to marry me? You're too nice a guy. Maybe you deserve someone who's whole."
With genuine anger Ken swung around to face her. "You've been listening to Jennifer too much. I'm tired of hearing that kind of talk out of you, and I never want to hear it again. I've told you any number of times that your legs and your stinking crutches don't matter to me. Do I have to turn you over my knee and pound it into your head from the bottom?"
"But Ken," she pleaded. "I don't know that I can come up to your expectations. I don't know how good a wife I'll be to you."
"I don't think I'll have any room to complain," Ken said, still angry. "Let me be the judge of how good a wife you are. If you're any better than Carolyn, you pass the test."
Now, it was Judy's turn to look out the window. In all the time she had spent with Ken, even after their trip the summer before, she never had dreamed this moment would actually come. As far as that went, the whole last year and a half had been out of a dream. Well, there was one way to try it out. "I don't suppose we can look for apartments tonight," she smiled finally, "But how about tomorrow?"
"Judith! Are you pregnant?" Irene snapped.
Judith's mother's face looked like it had been slapped. It was not an unexpected reaction to Ken and Judy.
"No, mother," Judy said calmly. "Ken and I have talked it over. We don't plan to have any children for at least three years, and maybe longer."
"Well, that's wise of you," Irene said, much more calmly. "As much as I would like to have grandchildren, I don't think you should have children, and I think you should think about it very carefully before you do." She turned to look at Ken, "I don't think this idea of you two marrying is very wise..."
Judith tried to interrupt. "Mother..."
" ... but I suppose you'll do what you want to do, anyway. Between you and your father and Ken, you've managed to avoid listening to anything I say." Irene stopped for a moment, and smiled before she went on, "And, in the short run, it looks like things have worked out pretty well. Now, I know you have been trying to avoid my advice, but please try and think about how you can cope with being a wife and a mother, because I really do worry that it could be too much for you."
"I will, mother," Judith promised her.
"Judy and I have been talking about getting married for months, now," Ken explained, less afraid of Irene than Judy. "We've both given a lot of thought to that. I think she can handle it, and I think she does, too."
"How would you know?" Irene snapped.
"We've done a lot of things together in a year and a half," Judith replied. "We both have a better idea of what I can do than I did when we started going together."
Irene sighed again. "Judith, let me say one thing, directly to you: You two are young and full of animal attractions for each other. Do you think you can keep his interest after he's had to live with you for a while?"
Judith knew her mother had a valid question; it had been a question she had worried about virtually from her second date with Ken. "I don't know," she said after a long silence. "I mean, Ken knows what my body looks like. We've been swimming together at least once a week since our third date." Judy was not about to mention their week at the cove, even now. "He keeps telling me that my legs don't bother him, but..."
"Sooner or later she may believe me," Ken interrupted.
"I don't know the answer, and I don't know how to find out other than living with him," Judith continued. "We'd both rather be married to do that."
Irene briefly considered making a proposal that would have shocked her daughter, but decided in an instant, as Judith had, that it wasn't a good idea. "Well, I still don't think it's wise," she said calmly. "But, I've learned there's no stopping you two when you get an idea into your heads. So, for what it's worth, good luck to you."
"Thank you, Mums," Judith said with a big smile. She and Ken had been dreading a big, knock-down, drag-out fight with her mother, to the point where they'd considered eloping. This didn't even count as a spat. "Daddy, you've been very quiet," she said. "What do you think?"
Norman smiled. He'd been thinking of what he could say to back up the kids. Now, he didn't have to. "I think you know," he smiled. "I'm at a loss for words to tell you how happy I am for you."