Who’s Afraid of Thomas Wolfe?

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[dropcap]T[/dropcap]homas Wolfe once said, “You can’t go home again.” To wit: once you’ve been out into the great wide world and seen what it has to offer, it’s always going to be a disappointment going back to the place you grew up. It’ll always feel smaller and more lacklustre than you remember.

Take me for example: my name is Hannah Hastings, and the home I can never go back to is the town of Northfield, British Columbia. It’s a pretty small place in the Southern Interior – about five or six thousand people altogether, and not a whole lot goes on from day to day. After my fiancé (then boyfriend) Bruce and I graduated high school, the first thing we did was head out for Metro Vancouver. We enroled at Simon Fraser University together and lived in residence on the mountain, working to support ourselves: I waited tables at a restaurant on Commercial Drive, and he worked in a sporting goods store in Kitsilano.

Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse when we got our degrees. We had to find a new place to live, which took a few months on its own, and when we did we had to save every penny we had just to afford it. We scrimped and saved for eight months to keep our heads above water, and even so we still had to go to my parents for help twice. And then, just a couple weeks ago, Bruce lost his job when a development firm bought the store he worked at so they could tear it down and put up condos. We did the math about a half dozen times, but there was only one option: if we wanted to make things work, we would have to move back home.

As I write this, we’re driving into Northfield. On the outskirts of town, there’s a large wooden sign standing in a grass field to the right of the road. It’s got big, bold, capital letters on it in that proudly exclaim, “WELCOME TO NORTHFIELD!” Below that, in less proud, less bold letters, it says, “Using the Gregorian calendar since 1998.”

Gee, it’s good to be home.

I’d talked things over with my mom a few days before we left Vancouver, and she was more than willing to let me and Bruce stay at the house until we got things sorted out. She even fixed up my old bedroom the way I’d left it.

When Bruce and I got to the house, my whole family was out in the front yard waiting to greet us. I hadn’t been home since Christmas, and seeing them all in such a good mood made me wonder why I didn’t visit more often. They all helped carry Bruce’s and my stuff into the house and then we spent the next three hours in the living room, catching up and just having a great time. But then… my dad came home… and I remembered why.

 

***

Before I go any further, dear reader, you need to understand a few things about my family. Firstly, and most importantly, we Hastings come from some seriously old money. See, Northfield (and most of the surrounding area) began life as a fur-trading post in the 1830s. My great-great-great-great uncle was a wealthy merchant from Britain who came over to Canada with the HBC to help get the establishment on its feet (and supposedly get out of paying a gambling debt to the Duke of Wellington) and our family’s been here ever since. My grandfather owns half the news media in this part of the province and my dad’s been the Mayor of Northfield for about as long as I’ve been alive. My family’s name carries a lot of weight in this area, and my dad is the kind of guy who will never fail to remind people of that fact.

And that’s the big problem: my name comes packaged with a lot of hoity-toity aristocratic BS, and I’ve always wanted to keep my distance from that. That’s the main reason why Bruce and I worked so hard to support ourselves when we lived in the city. I wanted to prove to myself that I could live a successful life without leeching off my family’s money.

***

I distinctly remember it was about 5:30 in the afternoon when I heard the front door slam. My sister Jane was telling me about her postsecondary plans for next year when Dad came stomping into the living room. He was muttering and swearing under his breath, and his face was a much darker, more dangerous shade of red than it normally is. My mom got up to greet him, but Dad just shut his eyes and winced, pinching the bridge of his nose.

“Please, Fiona, not now,” he grumbled. “I’ve had an utterly ghastly day!” Then he stomped over to the couch and threw himself down upon it, stretching across its entire length. I don’t think he even realized Bruce and my brothers had been sitting there, but they all jumped out of the way as he collapsed. Dad threw his hands up toward the ceiling and bellowed, “WHO WILL RID ME OF THIS TURBULENT DEPUTY MAYOR?!”

Mom went over to the couch and tried to get his attention. “Sam? Honey? Aren’t you going to say ‘Hi’ to-”

Without looking away from the ceiling, Dad put a finger to Mom’s lips and shook his head. “Up-bup-bup-bup-bup-bup! Fiona, you know the rules: no personal business until I’ve had at least one drink.” With the same hand, he then snapped his fingers and shouted at the ceiling, “Hawkins! Martini! Here! Now!”

Our butler Hawkins (remember what I said about hoity-toity aristocratic BS?) nodded wearily and rose from the chair where he was sitting. He walked through to the kitchen, where there was a small liquor cabinet, and began preparing my dad a drink.

My dad sank lower on the couch and groaned. “On second thought, Hawkins, I’m in no mood to wait! Just come in here and pour the gin and vermouth right in my mouth! I’ll gargle a bit and hopefully that’ll have the desired effect!” He paused and then added, “Better yet, just inject it right into my veins! I don’t even care at this point! I am just…” He groaned again and ran a hand through his hair. “I am done with this day!”

My dad has a bad habit of acting like he’s the only person on Earth, and it sometimes takes a lot of effort to remind him that he’s not. I sat up straight in the hope that he’d notice me and waved to him. “Um… Dad?”

“I mean first the school board’s begging for funds to renovate the gym at Northfield Elementary, and I have to tell them we don’t have the funds because we still have to fix all those bloody potholes on Main Street…”

“Dad?”

“And then Deputy bloody Mayor bloody Stanford somehow twists that around and accuses me of ‘not being invested in our children’s education’, whatever the hell that means!”

“Dad? Hellooo?”

“And then somehow he convinces half the City Council that I have to do more to uphold this town’s educational infrastructure, all the while the other half is whining about the potholes, and now I’ve got one group of idiots dragging me in one direction, another group of idiots dragging me in the other direction… I swear to God, I feel like Damocles sometimes! Only instead of a sword dangling above my head, it’s a bunch of idiots!”

I clapped my hands loudly and shouted, “DAD!”

Dad gave me a deer-in-the-headlights look and said, “Where the hell did you come from?”

Bruce replied that we’d been here all afternoon, but Dad just looked completely lost. My mom tried to walk him through it in the most patient tone she could manage, and reminded him that they’d already discussed this arrangement between them.

Dad sat up and looked at her incredulously. “When did we discuss that?! I have absolutely no recollection of such a conversation ever occurring!”

“It occurred three times!” Mom replied hotly.

“Are you absolutely positive I was in the room for those conversations?” Dad asked.

“Yes! You nodded your head and said it would be fine!”

Dad shot to his feet and spluttered, “Well, for God’s sake, woman! Just because I nod my head when others are speaking to me doesn’t mean I’m listening! I would think you would have learned that by now!”

Somewhere across the room, my brother Jamie smirked. “Yes, clearly this is all Mom’s fault for thinking you would give more than two seconds of thought to someone other than yourself…”

“See?” Dad bellowed. “He gets it!” Then he turned and pointed at me. “You. My study. Now.”

Without another word, Dad turned and marched out of the living room. I followed him at a safe distance, because I knew that he was dangerously close to ‘going off on one’, as my grandfather would say. We walked upstairs to the second floor and Dad directed me into the study, closing the door behind him. He sat in a large burgundy armchair in the corner and gestured to a chair across from him, motioning for me to sit. I did so, and waited patiently for him to speak, like the calm before the storm.

After what seemed like an uncomfortably long silence, he finally said, “So. Hannah. Walk me through this once. Slowly, if you please.”

As patiently as I could, I explained how Bruce and I had hit a financial rough patch and couldn’t afford to keep living in the city. I laid out all the grisly details and I told him the arrangement was only temporary.

“I would certainly hope so,” he interrupted curtly.

I tried to keep my voice level. “Believe me, this isn’t easy for me either, but it’s not like Bruce and I have a whole lot of options.”

Dad scoffed and shook his head. “‘Not a lot of options’? For God’s sake, listen to yourself! You are a Hastings, young lady, and a Hastings does not settle for ‘not a lot of options’! We do not let the system knock us down, alright? We are the system! We do not play by the rules, we make the rules! So I don’t want to hear how you’re out of options! I want you to go out there and make some new options for yourself! Pick yourself up and tell the system it answers to you!”

I started to ask him what that meant, but before I’d even finished the sentence he snapped, “It means get out there and pull your own bloody weight! Your mother and I aren’t going to be here forever, so you need to realize you won’t always have a cushion to land on when you fall! You’ve already come back for money twice since you graduated. I was willing to help you then because you are my daughter. But this? No, I’m sorry, this is just too much! For God’s sake, you’re 23! You should at least be able to live on your own!”

And that’s when I snapped. The hypocrisy of that statement was positively blinding. My dad had inherited everything he’d ever had. He’d gone to one of the best schools in the country on a trust fund, he had used his dad’s media pull to secure a cushy job at City Hall, and then he had used a combination of family money and that same media pull to launch a full-on political coup. All of his power and influence was a direct result of his winning the genetic lottery, and the only reason he’d gotten to where he was today was because other people had given him a leg up.

And, in the midst of this white-hot fury, there came a revelation. Ever since I left home, I had been busting my ass to pay for school and keep my head above water, and having to go to my parents for financial help had been like chewing off my own arm. At the time, I hadn’t been able to figure out why that was, but now I knew. I didn’t want my mom and dad’s help. I didn’t want to end up like my dad, or my granddad, or any of the generations of Hastings before them. I didn’t want to be one of those arrogant, conceited snobs who coasts through life without a care in the world, who steps absentmindedly over the broken backs of the working classes that keep the ones at the top afloat on a sea of blood, sweat, and tears.

It took me longer than I would care to admit to notice that I was on my feet, screaming all of this and more, hurling a scathing tirade at my dad while he sat watching me in haughty, wrathful silence.

“You want to know something?” I finished. “I did everything in my power to not end up a Hastings except change my damn name. And now that Bruce and I are getting married, I may just do that anyway.”

While my dad sat and glowered at me, I turned on my heels and marched toward the door of the study.

“Where do you think you’re going?” he asked finally.

Without turning to look at him, I said, “I’m going to type up some resumés so I can go job hunting tomorrow. Then, as soon as I’ve done that, I’m packing up and I’m leaving. There are tons of people in this town who would be glad to put me and Bruce up for a while.”

Before Dad could respond, I slammed the door on him. Then I smiled to myself. I’d gotten the last word. Dad hates when someone else has the last word.

***

Two weeks since my big fight with Dad. Two goddamn weeks, and not once has the man called to apologize.

To his credit, my uncle Teddy has been super chill about letting us stay with him, and he even helped set me up for a couple of interviews when I started my job hunt. Nothing came of them, but at least he tried, which is more than can be said of some people.

The problem with a place like Northfield is that there’s only so many summer jobs to go around in the first place, and most of those usually get snapped up by the local high school kids within the first couple weeks of June. It was already July by the time Bruce and I returned to Northfield, so I was pretty SOL on that front.

Eventually, I got so damn desperate for work that I applied for and got a job at a fast-food restaurant in the nearby town of Cedar Falls. This was pretty much rock bottom for me: I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 11, and some of the practices this particular chain engages in are… well, my spellchecker doesn’t recognize “Mengele-esque” as a word, but let’s just say it’s pretty appalling how these people treat animals (it’s also worth noting that, according to their corporate line, customers and employees also fall under the heading of “animals”).

But what’s worse is that the job is in Cedar Falls. That probably won’t mean anything to you, but then you didn’t grow up around here. See, Northfield and Cedar Falls have always had a bitter – and I mean capital ‘B’ bitter – cross-town rivalry. You think there’s a strong divide between Pepsi and Coke fans, or console gamers and PC gamers, or the Canucks and the Flames? Brother, you ain’t seen nothing until you’ve locked a Northfieldian and a Cedar Fallsian in a room together. Quite frankly, you’d best count yourself lucky if they both come out of that room with all their teeth.

And remember what I said earlier about my family’s position in Northfield? Well, as far as a lot of people around here are concerned, the Hastings family’s wealth and influence basically means we are Northfield, in the same way that the royal family is the UK or the US President is America. For a born-and-bred Northfieldian vegetarian with a serious public profile to apply for a McJob in a town with a massive hate-boner for my home and my family is like cutting off my own arm with a rusty paring knife and dressing the wound in battery acid, barbed wire, lemon juice, and rock salt.

But hey, it’s still easier than trying to reason with my dad.

***

I’m in hell. I am literally in hell. I’ve been up to my eyeballs in fryer grease, toddler puke, and God knows what else for the past three weeks, and I’m already sick of it. I’ve been working double shifts the last five days straight. I think I’ve had about six hours of sleep in the past week. When I’m not being insulted by customers because they can, quote, “smell the stink of Northfield on me,” I’m getting a lot of really inappropriate sexual comments from the 17-year-old assistant manager, even though I’VE TOLD YOU ABOUT EIGHTEEN TIMES I’M ENGAGED, RICKY! My second day here I spent about an hour in the ladies’ room throwing up because of all the stress I’m under, and lately I’ve taken to crying in the shower when I get home because oh dear God how is this my life?! I am violating every principle I believe in just by being here, and I am legitimately starting to wonder if homelessness would not be a preferable option to working one more day here. I mean, some of the overpasses in Northfield are pretty nice, and if you throw down a tarp or a nice piece of cardboard, you could make a decent living space for yourself…

Somewhere around lunchtime today, I got stuck cleaning out the children’s play area. A young kid had had an “accident” in the ball pit, and the smell had caused another kid to throw up onto a third kid, and that kid had started crying, which started all the other kids crying, which killed the cat that ate the rat that lived in the house that Hannah built…

I really thought things couldn’t get much worse than that. And then… Dad walked in.

He was with Jane. She was leading him by the hand and had a very weary expression on her face, while he had his eyes shut tight and was clutching a large wooden crucifix to his chest. Now that’s weird, even for him, but it was nothing compared to the garlic bulbs hanging around his neck and the crucifix sticking out his back pocket.

Dad was murmuring a silent prayer under his breath, so Jane snapped her fingers to get his attention and told him to open his eyes.

As soon as he saw me, Dad did a double take and stared at me like I’d grown a second head. He couldn’t believe it was me. I just gave him a weak wave with one hand while I tried to stifle a yawn with the other.

Jane explained that she and I had talked on the phone the other day, she’d told Dad how completely miserable I was. She had then twisted his arm until he’d agreed to talk with me, and was determined that none of us would leave this restaurant until we’d come to some kind of understanding.

I dropped what I was doing and walked with Dad and Jane to a table at the very back of the restaurant. Jane sat beside Dad on one side and I sat on the other, looking warily at him. We just sat there in silence for a few minutes and glared at each other, and then I said, “So… you’re looking well…” (Hey, I had to break the ice somehow, alright?)

After another minute, Dad replied, “Yes, and you look… well, to put it frankly, completely bloody awful.”

“Well, what do you expect? This is what life looks like when you actually have to work for a living.”

He groaned. “Oh, for Christ’s sake, Hannah, what do you want me to say? That I was wrong?! That I should give you free rein to just sponge off family money whenever it suits your fancy?”

“No, but it wouldn’t kill you to offer a small helping hand now and then!”

“Hasn’t it occurred to you by now that I’m doing this for your benefit?”

“Oh, really?! Please, enlighten me, Father, how is any of this to my benefit?”

“BECAUSE YOU WERE RIGHT, OKAY?!”

“Wait,” I said, a bit shocked, “what did you say?”

He sighed and slumped back in his seat. “You were right. What you said that day you stormed out was absolutely true. About how I’ve won the genetic lottery and had everything handed to me and blah blah blah. You’re right. I am quite possibly the luckiest sonofabitch for fifty clicks in any direction.”

“And so what does this have to do with me?”

“Think about it, Hannah! I have pretty much everything a man could ever want in life and more! And look at what a grade ‘A’ basket case I am! I mean I drink, I smoke, I gamble, I burn people in effigy… hell, I’m pretty sure I’ve actually engaged in cannibalism at one point in my life!”

Jane looked at him in shock and said, “Wait, what?!”

Dad shrugged bashfully. “Yeah, what can I say…? I was at a dinner party with these East Asian dignitaries about six years ago and I wasn’t fully up to speed on the language and customs, but I definitely heard the words ‘long pig’ getting tossed about when they were serving the entrées…” He shook his head and said, “Look, my accidental consumption of human flesh is not the issue! The point is you’re a bright kid, Hannah. There is no doubt in my mind that you could do great things if you applied yourself. But that’s the key: if you apply yourself. I didn’t even start putting any effort into my life until I was in university, but by that time I was already well on my way to being the man I am now.”

“The raving, crucifix-wielding, garlic-wearing lunatic?” I asked slyly.

Dad chuckled and shook his head. “OK, A: I completely deserve that, and B: yes. Your grandfather’s the same way as was his dad before him and his dad before him. And that’s where you come in, Hannah. You’re different from us. When you went off to school under your own steam, I was secretly kind of impressed. You had the option to coast like so many generations of your ancestors, and you didn’t take it. But then you came back for help and I started to panic. I didn’t… I guess I didn’t want you to turn into me.”

I didn’t say anything for nearly a full minute. My dad always acted like he was the king of the world, the most perfect and amazing person in the room. He had an ego the size of Texas and he never second-guessed himself. I think this was the most humility he’d ever shown before another person.

I put my hand on his and looked in his eyes. “Dad, I’m not going to be that. I’m not going to be you. I think all this that I’ve been doing for the last six weeks proves pretty well that I don’t want to coast. If I have an option between the easy way and the hard way, I’m going to take the hard way. But sometimes, when the hard way gets too hard, it doesn’t hurt to have someone who’s got your back. When Bruce and I were living in the city, we knew tons of people who either moved back in with their parents or never left in the first place because they couldn’t afford anything else. And most of them are still working their asses off to make a future for themselves that’s just a tiny bit brighter. That’s all I really need is that little boost. I mean, there’s no shame in throwing a drowning woman a life preserver, right?”

Dad thought about this for a minute and then nodded his head slowly. “Alright. I suppose that’s fair. I’m not going to hand you everything on a silver platter, but I guess it couldn’t hurt to pass you the salt once in a while.”

I smiled and said, “I have absolutely no idea what that means.”

He smiled back and said, “To be perfectly honest, neither do I. It’s just you had such a good speech there that I wanted to punctuate it with something deep and poetic. I think it kind of got away from me.”

I held out my hand and said, “Truce?”

He shook my hand with an approving nod and said, “Truce. And for what it’s worth, I am sorry for the things I said.”

“Me too.”

***

I quit my job in Cedar Falls that same day and Bruce and I returned home. About six weeks later, the comic book store in Northfield started looking for a new assistant manager and I got the job. Now I’m working five days a week and making almost four times what I made before. We still can’t quite afford to move back to Vancouver, but maybe we don’t need to. There are some really nice apartments going cheap over in Brewerton, about forty minutes south of here…

You know, maybe Wolfe had it wrong… Maybe you can go home again…