A Charmed Life
Chapter 8: The Gathering Clouds
Copyright© 2016 by The Outsider
24 September 1986 - Hardwick Road, Enfield, Massachusetts
Jeff was more in control of himself after his chat with the coach. He still pushed the midfielders hard but he wasn’t running them into early graves any longer.
The team was now a month into the soccer season and playing their fifth game. Midway through the second half with the score tied at one-to-one, Thompkins’ goalie cleared the ball with a booming punt that sailed past the midfield line. Jeff fought for position while the ball came down near him. As the opposing player gathered himself for an attempt to head the ball, Jeff cut towards the other team’s goal.
Without Jeff to push against, the other player fell to the ground. The ball continued down the field with Jeff pursuing it unmarked. He dribbled it down the sideline, keeping track of his teammates while he ran; the other team moved to defend him. At the corner of the penalty box he crossed the ball in a high, arcing pass.
The opposing goalie came out to challenge for the ball. He had the advantage as the only player allowed to use his hands; it may have worked out better for him had he made contact with the ball when he punched at it. The player next to him was Peter Dufresne, a forward for Thompkins. The ball passed the goalie and into a position for Peter to head it into the net. Chris Micklicz grabbed him around the neck before they joined their teammates for the celebration.
The game ended in Thompkins’ fifth straight win of the season.
“So what are you taking for classes over at Swerve again?” Jack asked Allison at lunch the next week. “Swerve” was the unofficial nickname of Swift River Valley Community College in Enfield Village.
“Calculus II this semester and Calc III next. I should be well ahead of my peers when I get to college.”
“Where are you going to apply?” Kathy asked.
“I’ll be applying to MIT Early Decision.” Jack let out a low whistle even though the other three friends weren’t surprised. “What about you guys?”
“My first choice is Johns Hopkins for pre-med,” Jack answered.
“NYU for computer science for me,” Kathy added.
“I’m still not sure,” Jeff said. Allison looked at him out of the corner of her eye but said nothing. Jack and Kathy didn’t notice the exchange.
Allison cornered Jeff after their next class and pushed him outside. “What the hell’s going on?”
“Don’t play coy with me, Jeff! You lied to your best friends at lunch! You lied to me. Why?”
He waved her to a bench. “I’m sorry, Allison. I can’t afford for my Mom to find out yet.”
“About what?” she asked, exasperated.
“Allison, I’m not applying to college.”
“I’m not going to be applying because I’ll be enlisting in the Army.”
Allison’s eyes nearly fell out of her head they opened so wide. “What? Your Mom’s going to flip! With your GPA? And with as hard as you’re being scouted?”
He shrugged. “It doesn’t seem as important in comparison. Can I ask you not to tell Jack or Kathy yet? I don’t need my parents finding out before I tell them myself.”
She hugged him. “Of course not! I won’t say anything until you say it’s okay.”
“I know I have to tell my parents eventually, but not just yet.”
Jeff was searching for something unusual in the attic three weeks after his conversation with Allison. His mother’s birthday was coming up in another three weeks, at the end of October; he was trying to find something to go with his present to her. His mother and sister were off shopping together today. His father was catching up on work at his garage.
Jeff flipped through papers in an unlabeled box he’d never noticed before. Most of the paperwork in the box was from the mid- to late-1940s. One page brought him up short. The page was a notarized copy of some sort of legal document; it was an adoption decree from the Probate Court of Hampshire County, Massachusetts in Northampton. The document decreed that Marisa McLaren was to be adopted by Nickolas Keiolis of Pelham, his grandfather. The date on the decree read May 22, 1948.
“What’s this?” Jeff whispered.
Jeff studied the box closer. In it he discovered pictures of a man he resembled more than the man he considered his grandfather. That man was wearing World War II-era clothes. As he continued to leaf through the box, Jeff came across more pictures of the man, George McLaren, with his grandmother. Grandma Keiolis appeared pregnant in some of the photos.
Jeff also found letters addressed to his grandmother. They were grouped together, hand-written and still with the envelopes. He unfolded the yellowing papers and read each letter. George McLaren described what he could of the military training of those days. World War II censorship didn’t allow much detail.
The letters started a month after December 7, 1941. George McLaren enlisted the day after the attack. Jeff followed his biological grandfather’s training progression over the next few months. Grandpa McLaren, as Jeff began to think of him, described Basic Training in general terms. He’d continued on to Artillery training then volunteered for the Airborne.
Grandpa McLaren’s letters described the Normandy invasion. He’d written Grandma once he’d returned safely to England. George McLaren’s last letter was dated September 14, 1944. The next letter in the pile proved to be a Western Union telegram; Grandpa McLaren had been killed in the invasion of Holland on September 20, 1944. His mother was two and a half.
Jeff carried the box down to his car. He drove to his father’s garage on Route 21 near Belchertown. He found his father working on a car’s engine. Joe looked up when he noticed someone entering the service bays.
“Hey, Jeff! What brings you to visit your old man?” Jeff said nothing as he set the banker’s box down. He lifted the lid and extracted a single piece of paper. Jeff extended the adoption decree without a word; Joe’s smile faded when he recognized what his son held. Joe set his wrench down and waved his son towards the office while he wiped his hands.
“Where’d you find that?” Joe asked as he settled into the desk chair.
“In the attic.”
“You just found it?”
“Yes. Why keep this a secret?”
“Does it matter?” Joe asked, leaning forward on his desk.
“This is family history, Dad!” Jeff cried.
“Yes, it is. More than that, it’s important family history. But does it matter?”
“Matter?” Jeff echoed. “Of course it matters!”
“Does it?” Joe replied. “Are you ever going to meet George McLaren? There are no more McLarens in the area; George was an only child, so there are no McLaren cousins. Is Nick Keiolis no longer your grandfather now?”
Jeff didn’t reply right away as he considered the questions. “No, Dad, I guess it doesn’t matter,” he responded minutes later. “Grandpa’s the only grandfather I’ve ever known; I never got to meet your parents.” His Dad’s parents died before he and Kara were born.
Joe nodded. “Do me a favor? Don’t mention this to your mother. Or your sister, for that matter. Take the box back up to the attic; when you’re done at the house, meet me over at The Lunch Car. I’ll finish up the Lincoln, head over and save us a table.”
The Knox men shared a table for lunch thirty minutes later. The Enfield Lunch Car was Joe’s favorite diner in the valley, a love his son shared. Jeff ordered two eggs on corned beef hash, his usual; comfort food might help settle his mind. He looked at his father with an expectant gaze. His father ignored him until he’d finished ordering.
Joe waited for the waitress to leave; he took a sip of his water before he spoke. “Jeff, your mother and I have never brought up what you found for one simple reason: your mother gets near-irrational if you even bring up the subject,” his father explained. “She was close to seven months pregnant with you when I first discovered that same box; I asked her about it and she had an actual conniption. She was so angry, I thought she’d go into early labor. It took me nearly an hour to calm her down. Why that we have that box and not your grandmother I don’t know.”
Joe sipped at his water again. “Grandma met Grandpa in 1945, after VJ Day. They married in late ‘47 and he filed for adoption immediately. The decree was finalized and that was it. Grandpa’s girls from his first marriage, your aunts, consider your mother their sister. That’s it. Not ‘step-sister, ‘ sister. Your mother tries to lock away her feelings on the subject, yet she keeps that box. Be very careful what you do with this knowledge, Jeff.”
Jeff didn’t know how to reply. They ate lunch in silence.
Thompkins’ soccer team powered through their schedule. They compiled a near-perfect record of fifteen-and-one. They were seeded first in their conference tournament in mid-October.
That’s when the wheels came off the bus.
Wilbraham Academy, the eighth seed, rolled right over them in the opening game of the tournament. Thompkins seemed like they were checking off every possible mental mistake from an invisible list: their play was uninspired, they were out of position, they were a step behind on every play. Even Jeff played below his usual level; he wasn’t far off his norm, but it was noticeable. Wilbraham won five-to-nil.
“Well, shit,” Jeff said to himself. He stood at midfield with his hands on his hips while his high school soccer career ended with a whimper. One of Wilbraham’s seniors stopped him as the two teams shook hands.
“Hey, you’re a senior too this year, right?”
“Yeah. The glory days are coming to an end.”
“I hear you’re being scouted for baseball already, though?” The other boy played the same three sports as he did, though Jeff didn’t know his name.
“Yeah, but I’m not sure which way I’m gonna go.” Jeff knew that the other player thought he meant he wasn’t sure whether to chose college or pro sports. He saw no reason to correct that assumption.
“How’s life as a sort-of college student?” Jeff asked Allison as the four friends ate lunch.
“It’s okay,” Allison shrugged.
“My, aren’t we enthusiastic?” Jack muttered before taking a bite of his grinder.
“The classes are fine,” Allison said. “Not having you guys around is a bummer.”
“We’re not going to be with you at whatever polytechnic university you wind up at next year, Allison,” Kathy pointed out. Allison stuck her tongue out at her while throwing a corn chip at Jeff.
“Hey!” a startled Jeff exclaimed. “I didn’t say anything!”
“No, but you were thinking something. I could tell.”
“What is this? 1984?”
“Exactly,” Allison replied, nodding. “A thoughtcrime!” Jeff rolled his eyes. “How are you guys doing in your classes here?”
Jack shrugged, answering for all of them. “Okay, I guess. Mid-semester grades will be out Friday. Nothing less than a ninety on test, quizzes or papers for me.”
“Same here,” Kathy added.
“Still in the early lead in our Spanish class, Allison,” Jeff smiled at her. She grimaced. Jeff scored two or three points higher than she on every assignment or test they’d been assigned in Spanish V this year.
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” she pointed out.
Jeff gave her a look. “I’m the athlete. I’ll handle the sports clichés, okay?”
Jeff wiped his face with a towel while he sat on the bench. He gulped water before he lowered the cage on his hockey helmet. He watched as Chris Micklicz practiced defensive scenarios with his new partner, Ryan Demmings; Ryan was a freshman.
Coach Kessler permanently split their defensive pairing after two years together. He’d told them that he needed to spread their defensive strength to other lines; Jeff wasn’t so sure that was a good strategy. The new pairings were okay but neither had the “pop” that he and Chris seemed to have together, the near-telepathic foreknowledge of what the other was about to do. Still, the man was the coach, not Jeff.
Chris came off the ice and sat next to Jeff on the bench. The pair shared a look. Chris shrugged at him as if to say “it is what it is.”
“Jeff, did you get those college applications done?”
“Not yet, Mom.”
“The deadlines are at the beginning of January,” she reminded him yet again. “You won’t have much time if you keep putting it off.”
Jeff fought not to shake his head until his mother left the room. He still had two months before the end of the year to finish the applications, if he decided to. His mother’s questions about them were coming more and more often, and it was becoming harder and harder to put her off.