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The Captain

choices

With a bright, open face and confident gestures that came from knowing he held the attention of the small crowd of the dozen or so co-workers, Jim delivered his punchline:

“I mean, just because you have a banana, doesn’t mean you have to add it to the fruit salad!”

Everyone laughed. Politely. Quite a few nodded and smiled because that was their agreeable way. As always, a mixed response, but on balance, he was pleased.

Jim knew how to capture attention. He knew how to let it go. Which he then did, the wave had crested and it was no longer his turn. He wanted to be remembered today as a leader, their leader, an engaged conversationalist and listener. Not a blowhard.

He wanted these people to like and respect him. His new colleagues. His team.

He switched from storyteller to avid listener. Wielding the same confidence but executed with a more subtle elegance and generosity.

“But anyway. Harry, you had a great holiday, no? Where’d you go—Charlevoix?”

Harry nodded and started talking about his recent holiday (which was to his beach house in Grand Haven, not Charlevoix); but he was pleased Jim singled him out as his follow-up, the one to ride the wave as it rolled into shore. Harry praised the weather was, how warm Lake Michigan could be. Where in Grand Haven they have the house and how he and Kathy and the boys take the kids there every year and spend most of the time on their boat. People nodded politely and agreed and slowly the crowd disbanded back to the coolers for more drinks or joined other groups talking about other things.

Julia had watched her husband and then watched the people disperse and shifted her gaze to the field behind them. Two fields, actually. The first was fallow, overgrown by grasses and weeds. The other corn. The kind of field you could wander into and get lost.

She had asked about it earlier, to one of the spouses, “Do they eat all this corn around here?”

“Well now, good heavens no! That’s for the feed. For cows. Most of the corn around here is for feed. Sweet corn’s what you eat.”

“Oh.”

“And for cereal, it goes down to Battle Creek. You know, to Kellogg’s.”

“Oh right. Someone told me I should visit the Kellogg’s factory, when I said we were moving to Grand Rapids.”

“Battle Creek’s not too far, you could go. Gosh I haven’t been since I was a kid, been meaning to take the kids.”

Julia felt she was probably supposed to ask about the kids now that they had been introduced into the conversation. But she hadn’t felt like it. “And this other field, here? What’s that growing?”

“Why nothing, I don’t think. Probably fallow. Might be hay.”

“Hay?”

“For livestock. They grow it and roll it up. Looks like little loaves of bread on the field, in the autumn. You’ll see.”

“Right. I know those. They do that in the east too.”

“Whereabouts are you from, in the east?”

“I grew up just outside Boston.”

“Oh yes, that’s right, now. Pretty area, Boston. You have that great aquarium.”

“Yes, it’s very nice. The aquarium.”

“Grand Rapids, well we don’t yet have an aquarium, but we might get something, being on Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes, such a part of our history. It’d be real nice for the City to have something about their history and nature – like an aquarium. Have you been to the zoo, yet?”

“No. Not yet, but I’m sure we’ll make it there.”

“Boston’s real nice. You get all four seasons, like we do. I couldn’t live anywhere they don’t have four season.”

Story Break

The firm picnic was in a public park. The city had many parks – she had been told by the realtor when they had visited in March to look at houses. This park looked more like a field, butting into real fields. The corn stalks were heavily pregnant with ears and silk and wafted a fresh, vegetable smell over the dry earth. It smelled like regular corn to Julia. She wondered how it tasted.

There was a statue near the parking lot, of the man who gave the land for the park, or the money for the park, she wasn’t sure.

When they had first arrived, another spouse had seen her looking at the statue and explained the park was new, used to be all fields. Not much use to the City. Julia couldn’t remember, it was the gift of someone, some rich family who made their money in steel. Or Steel was the name of the company. His name was everywhere. Some of the benches had names too “Loving memory of John and Lucinda Idema” on bronze plaques. Even the tables were claimed: “The William T. and Anne M. Burris family.” 

The spouse had told her the park just opened recently, this spring. “That elementary school right there, I don’t know how long that’ll stay up. It’s not a great school. Most of the children are being bused to the new schools, with the latest millage passing. We have good schools. I think someday soon this’ll all be park. It’ll be real great for the City.”

Julia had looked at the school. It was a classic mid-century one story, small windowed school. Not the kind she went to in Boston. Her school had been brick, and older than this town, probably. This City.

She looked down, her plate was empty.

Her cup had her name on it. Printed neatly by a woman who had been going around handing out soda – or “pop.”  After seven years in Chicago, Julia still called it ‘soda.’

“Dear, do you want a pop? Nice and cold. And now you must belong to Jim! Julia isn’t it? It is so great to finally meet you! We’re really thrilled to have Jim join us.”

Julia couldn’t get over how friendly these people were. So agreeable.

And their accents, they weren’t exactly southern  – but there was the same undulation of pitch, heaving up and down as they drew out the vowels. There was something country about the way they said her name “Jeweliya.” Different from Chicago, which was more nasal, clipped.

Jim, well over six feet, normally the tallest person around. But here the men were big and tall and had thick muscled forearms and round necks. Everyone looked like they had been on the football team in high school, even some of the women.

Jim had told her it was the German and Dutch blood. “Just like you, Jules.” Julia’s maiden name was Schoenfeld. Back in Boston everyone thought she was Jewish, but she wasn’t, just German, or Austrian. In Chicago no one thought she was Jewish. No one cared. She had gotten married right after moving there anyway and changed her name.

Jim weaved through the crowd, quick glances at people’s cups before he said their names. He saw his wife at the salad table, filling her plate. The back of her head was a knot of hair. She called it a knot, he called it a nest. It looked like a nest, something a bird would put together and then lay eggs in. The variant colors of yellow and gold shone in the sun. 

He walked over to her and looked down on her slender back. It was brown and freckled where the sun had been on it all summer, it had been a hot summer. Hot and dry, which was unusual for Michigan, as both of them had been told many times that day. Weather seemed to be of particular interest here. It wasn’t just how people connected, it was something they were interested in. People talked about annual rainfall, early frosts, and late freezes to the inch, the day and the degree.

Julia supposed it was because they had farming in their blood. Weather mattered to farmers. That’s what Jim had told her, “What you have to understand, these are farming people. It’s in their blood.”

“What, like sailing is in your blood?” Jim’s ancestors were from Northern Europe, probably Scotland or Scandinavia. By now it was hard to tell. Their last name was Christenson.

“Yeah. Always looking for sturdy oaks to turn into a ship.”

Story Break

He came over to her now and put his hand on her shoulder. “Hi. Having more salad?”

She hated when her husband put his hand on her shoulder. It made her feel like a child. She shrugged off his hand and stepped towards a container of coleslaw. Most of them were almost finished, Julia could see the black lettering on the bottom of their containers, saying who they belonged to, whose cars they’d go home in that night and whose cupboards they’d wait in until the next batch of coleslaw or potato salad needed them.

“I don’t think they eat particularly healthy here. Everything’s drenched in oil. Sauce.” Jim noticed quietly.

“It’s fine.”

“The burgers are good. They have veggie burgers. I’m sure you could get one—they’re just over there.”

“Jim, I want salad. I’m fine.”

“What the hell is this one? Strawberries? Blueberries? That’s not a salad. Who makes this?”

Julia noticed the dish he was talking about and reached in with the serving spoon and pulled out a scoop and dumped it on her plate, on top of the coleslaw. She turned away from the table and walked back to several chairs that were deliberately arranged in a circle but empty because everyone was talking and standing.

Jim followed his wife and stood over her as she carefully arranged her paper plate in the center of her lap.

“I think you’re the only one still eating salad. Everyone else has moved on to dessert. The dessert table is over there.”

Julia ignored him and started eating, carefully holding her plate in her left hand and scooping the contents onto a fork with her right. At times, her scoops were too forceful, and they shifted bits of lettuce and a strawberry off her plate into the grass. She looked but left them.

“You’re dropping food.”

“It’s a field.”

“It’s a park.”

“It’s fine.”

Jim stood facing her but moved his head, so he looked out over the crowd.

“They said there are about twice as many people here than last year. Well, obviously. Because of all of us.”

Julia looked up at him. He was in front of the sun, so she had to shield her eyes to look him in the face.

“Shouldn’t you go talk to more people? How long are we staying?”

“Yeah. Should. Hour. Two. I don’t want to leave too early. I’ll be back. You should go talk to a few people. Get to know some of them.”

“I’m eating. When I finish.”

“Jules. . . “ She looked up and held his gaze, unblinking, willing him to continue. “I want you to be happy.”

Julia went back to her plate and shoved more forkfuls in her mouth.

“I’m just trying to make you happy.”

Julia chewed thoughtfully and swallowed. She put down her fork and plate, stood up very close to him and looked him in the face. “I know.”

“I have a big role here, in charge of these people. I know it’s not easy, it’s not easy for me. I’m going to go talk with some more people. You’re ok here.” She nodded, although it didn’t sound like a question.

“It doesn’t work like that.” Julia quietly said to her husband’s back as he walked away towards another small group of his co-workers. She recognized Oscar, another former partner, but he was the only one. She didn’t know anyone else. Just names Jim brought home with him like she knew them. She had looked them up once online to see faces, but those pictures were so stylized. No one looked like that. And she didn’t know most of the spouses anyway, well, wives, most of the people at the firm were male, so their spouses were wives. She didn’t know them. But everyone’s short bio mentioned their family: Tony lives with his two sons and wife Jean, Peter has three daughters and a wife Debbie. Who runs the local school board and makes her own Halloween costumes and plans to send all three kids to UofM Law School on her husband’s salary and her frugality and rigorous goal-setting.

Jim’s picture had been added recently, since his firm was purchased by Harris and Knight. He was now at a nationally ranked law firm. There were picnics like this happening all over the country, “Firm Day,” designed to promote friendship, values, and a homemade, small-town feel in the middle of a massive firm.  Julia couldn’t imagine this kind of thing happened in Hyde Park, Chicago, really wouldn’t be the same.

What Julia couldn’t understand, and what Jim couldn’t really explain, was why on earth, he had to move from Chicago to Grand Rapids as their firm got bigger. Shouldn’t more people be moving to the city? Consolidating?

“That’s where they wanted us.” He had shrugged. “They wanted us to reinvigorate the practice, this is where a few of the clients are and they are hoping to grow the practice in Western Michigan. I’ll be leading the office here as it grows. That’s really exciting. This area is really growing. Lots of firms here. Retail, manufacturing, health care. And they want me to lead it. And if we want to start a family, this is the best place to do it.”

It didn’t make any sense to Julia. She knew there were too many lawyers, Jim was always saying that. But how could she argue? How could she be the one against moving to the best place to start a family?

“This is where the firms are, Western Michigan. You’ll see, Grand Rapids is beautiful.” He had said.

Julia cleared her plate, stood up, and headed back to the salad table. By now, the lettuce was wilted from too much dressing and the heat of the afternoon. The vegetables were soggy, the sauce almost hot. She sighed and looked out over the table for a minute. She looked out to the school. There was an old baseball field in front of it, disused. There was a half basketball court where the net had been ripped and hung from the rim. The playground was new, plastic, green and blue. It was one of those models that all schools had now, looked like a big sprawling ship. With a few turrets, walkways and slides. They always looked like ship. She didn’t know why.

She dumped her plate in the trash can, exciting a few yellow jackets, and turned to join Jim and meet some new people.

She walked up behind Oscar’s wife and put her hand on her elbow. Sasha turned, and seeing Julia her whole face broke into a smile. She leaned in and hugged. “I was looking for you earlier! Where have you been? I couldn’t find anyone we know.”

Scanning the crowd, Julia said, “I don’t think there is anyone we know here. Maggie and Dennis didn’t come. And that’s about it, other than some support staff. Right?”

Julia had known Sasha for a while. Their husbands had worked together for many years in Chicago. Julia liked her, but she felt they didn’t quite understand each other. Julia always felt disagreeable around Sasha. She didn’t mean to be, but she just couldn’t manage the wholesome, Midwest, agreeableness. It wasn’t her.  Sasha seemed to take it personally. Julia thought Sasha too optimistic and well, fake.

“Yeah. But this is lawyers only, not support staff. Crazy. Just last year, we were at an outing talking about whether or not the firm would take over. Now look where we are! It worked out so well, I think. Oscar and Jim are pretty lucky.” And then in a hushed voice “Jim’s just the person to take charge. They’ve been having some issues here, they need someone in charge, to right the ship, you know. And Oscar can really focus on client work.”

There it was, the fake optimism. Julia tried to match Sasha’s tone but feared she fell short “Yeah. So. . . you guys all settled in?”

“Everything unpacked. Great open space, not like our old house. I like things to be settled, you know. I have so many things to do, my list is a mile long! This last year was hard, not knowing. But now it’s all settled. Kids start school next week. Good school.”

“Which school do they go to? I noticed an elementary school over there—must be close to you guys.”

“Yeah, hmm . . . I don’t know what that one is. Not sure. They are going to Blue Hills. Great school. They’ll start next week. This really worked out for the best. This will be good for Oscar. And for Jim. So many more opportunities with this firm. And you know, I like Grand Rapids. I grew up in Chicago but my parents are from around here. It has a small town feel, you know? I don’t mind the move. The people are so nice.

“They are very nice. Our move was fine too. I miss the old group though, you know? You’re so close, and then you’re not. Just like that, professional lives. It’s bizarre, like a divorce.”

“Well, if it’s a divorce, at least we have the best lawyers in the country!”

Julia couldn’t tell if Sasha was kidding. Julia smiled.

“You know, all that salad must have been pretty salty or something. I’m going to get a Coke – sorry, pop – you want…?” 

“I’m fine. Hurry back, I want you to meet some great people!”

Julia went to get a drink and heard Jim’s voice somewhere nearby. She ducked around the crowd. Good thing no one knew her, yet. She just didn’t feel like any more small talk about schools or weather or corn.

She skirted around tables, passing the trash cans and the swarming yellow jackets. She walked towards the sun, her shape receding across the overgrown baseball field.

She stepped onto the playground. The ground looked like it was made from old tires, spongy, smelly in the heat. There was a young girl playing with some of the scooters. Her dad was with her, he looked Julia’s age. She wondered what he did for a living, here in Grand Rapids. Probably an engineer. She heard what sounded like a tennis game nearby but couldn’t see the courts. They must be on the far side of the school.

Julia walked towards the swings and sat in one, but as she lifted her feet it became uncomfortable. Her hips were too broad. The rubber pinched her sides. She left the swings and climbed up the massive structure in the middle of the playground. The ship.

It was all interconnected and sprawling and designed, no doubt, to engage and innovate children. She realized why it reminded her of a ship, the wheel at the top. Designed so everyone would work together as a team, no one left behind. All hands on deck. Except the captain, he runs the ship, perhaps the playground.

He stands up there at the wheel and commands himself, everyone else, the captain.

She could see Jim there. That’s where he’d stand. She wondered where she’d be. On the swings, probably. In the recycled-tire water.

The boat had several platforms and landings. She walked around, quickly getting from one place to the next with her adult legs. On one platform, the sun shone brightly onto a convex plastic window. It had been baking all afternoon, and heat rose in gentle optical waves. She sat down and curled her legs to fit in the window. It held her. She leaned against a plastic pole and looked through the window at the group of people she had just left.

The legs. The dresses. The wedge sandals. The polo shirts and khakis. All swimming together in a synchronized circle of complacency and triumph. The voices mixed and buzzed, when she focused she thought she could hear Jim’s.

She pulled her hair out and over her shoulder. Petting it softly, absent-mindedly. Something about the movement calmed her. She loved having her hair played with, even by herself. She did it when she was stressed, and sometimes when she was calm. Jim used to ask her why—it made her hair all knotted and a bit greasy. She’d always done it. And would keep doing it. He stopped asking.

The plank felt warm through her shirt. She heard the young girl talking nonsense to her engineer dad and the thwap thwap of tennis balls.  She thought of having sex, on a playground. She couldn’t tell if that would be sexy or creepy. She looked over at the dad. He wasn’t very handsome. Messy, a bit fat. With him it would be creepy. 

She imagined her husband, him steering the boat towards her, getting down, rescuing her from the recycled-tire water. Pulling her up to the green and blue plastic. Holding her tight and kissing her. Then he’d be steering the ship, one hand on her, feeling her body as he steered both her and the ship to safety. Without her even asking him to.

She stroked her hair and closed her eyes.

When the hard plastic became uncomfortable beneath her she shifted her weight slightly. The sun had moved off her face but was still on her ankles. She was warm but felt chilled. She curled up towards the window even more, pressing as much of her body against herself as she could to maintain the warmth.

“Julia! Julia?”

She heard a distant voice but didn’t answer. He couldn’t see her behind the plastic window, not her shape anyway, as long as she didn’t move. She contemplated a life that began with her staying silent, waiting for him to leave, then walking away. Not sure where to, but just one foot in front of the other. Walking. Back to Chicago? No, that wasn’t far enough. She didn’t want to be anywhere, she just wanted to go. She’d just walk west. Or north, cross into Canada back east, as far as Europe even. She was smart, she’d figure it out. She relaxed and imagined the possibilities.

It’s amazing the visuals and thoughts that can occupy one’s mind, even for a second, when you forget pain cannot be outrun.

After a while, she slowly lay down on the platform, stretching out her body against the warm plastic, almost too warm but with the cooling air it was fine. She imagined she was off the ship, on a thin raft in the water. Dark cool water floating all around her, carrying her. Passing by her body in their current. She hung without movement, warm from the sun, cool from the water underneath. She could see Jim above her, on the ship, leaning over the edge calling to her. His voice muffled like it was traveling through glass or a plastic window. He was calling because she had fallen off and needed to be rescued. She felt so cool and relaxed, her body heaving in the gentle sway. She felt happy and at peace.

A line from the ship caught her raft, Jim’s cries got more real, louder, clearer. He pulled on the rope, pulled it up out of the water to save her, but she tipped off the other side and sank beneath the waves. Seeing his face and frantic arms getting farther and farther away. His screams of panic and despair. Darkness closed around her and she felt heavy, and cold.

She opened her eyes and looked to the dark blue Midwest sky. Cicadas buzzed angrily

“I am Julia. Who is loved by Jim.” The whisper came out of her and then floated up to the sky like a balloon, higher and higher until she couldn’t see it anymore and wasn’t sure if she said it or dreamt it. She felt something she couldn’t name.

The laughter of the girl brought her back to the ship and the recycled-tire water and the playground and the firm picnic and her husband, somewhere near, dazzling people with stories.

She sat up, tied her hair and jumped off the boat into the recycled-tire water. She rubbed her sore back and stiff legs and pushed the swing as she passed. She went to find her husband who was milling in the waning crowd. People were walking with coolers towards cars and packing up Tupperware with their name on it on black marker.

It was time to go home. To their home, their new home. More space than they knew what to do with. Perfect space to start a perfect family. 

Story Break

In the car Jim had some papers on his lap and was making notes; he could work in the car and did. Julia preferred to drive. She knew they were going cross-town, she had her IPhone on with directions because she didn’t know the way yet.

She turned to her husband “Did you tell the story about fruit salad?”

“Hmmm. What about it?”

“There was a salad there. On the dessert table. Fruit salad.”

“So?” Jim mumbled back to her, still writing.

“I just thought it was funny, that’s all.”

Julia hit the left-turn signal absentmindedly and turned into their community.

“Well, I hope I didn’t offend anyone.” Jim put his work away as they pulled into the garage.

“If you did, it serves them right for putting bananas in the salad!”

She could feel him smile, and then she heard him laugh. She turned off the engine and started laughing too. Their giggling caught each other and became infectious. She looked at him, so silly, helpless. He looked at her. She was kind when she wanted to be.

They laughed until their stomachs hurt. They turned out the garage lights and Jim followed Julia into the house.

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