Ken pulled his truck into the first parking spot he found. A busy holiday weekend like this, he knew finding parking would be a challenge, even in his little town.
At sixty-two, Ken was fortunate to be in good health and a good place in his life. It wasn’t ideal, of course, but it was as close as he could hope to be. He had a decent job (but was looking forward to retiring), a great circle of friends, and in his estimation, lived in one of the prettiest places on the planet.
In the personal-life department, Ken had two ex-wives and no children. Ken never wanted children. Families were messy, infuriating and heartbreaking. He had been up front with both wives about not wanting children, and initially, both said they felt the same way. But, when it came down to it, they didn’t. Not really. Hence, two ex-wives.
After his second divorce, Ken quit the job he had in the big city, sold the house in the ‘burbs, and moved two states over where he could live life far away from his failed marriages and, for that matter, the rest of his family. Ken wanted nothing more than to leave the lot of them to their disappointment and blame.
That was twenty years ago.
“Hey, Ken!” John Chen called out when Ken walked through the doors of his hardware store. “You made it in, and still alive!”
“Not as bad as the last couple of years. Even found a place to park.” Ken smiled and waved as he ducked into the aisles. John came looking for him when he was done with the line at the register. He found Ken contemplating items in the plumbing aisle.
“Anything I can help with today?”
“Don’t think so my friend,” Ken replied. “Just making mental notes. I promised the Fairchilds I’d do some work in their bathroom. You know, Don’s still laid up after his surgery.”
“No, didn’t know. Figured he’d be back at it by now.”
“Apparently he’s had some complications, or something. Not sure the details. Alice called last week and asked if I’d see to a few things around the place while he’s still recovering. Their bathroom’s in pretty poor shape.” Ken placed a hand on John’s shoulder, and asked, “You have a good Thanksgiving?”
“Oh, sure. Always great to have the whole family around. Too much food, of course, but you get my grandmother and Dominique’s grandmother in the same kitchen, it’s gonna be a cook-off!” John patted his stomach.
Ken smiled. Some families just figure out how to get along. John Chen was third generation Chinese, Dominique was half Jamaican, and their eldest son converted to Islam when he married a girl from Somalia. Somehow, they managed all of it without fanfare or melodrama.
Ken selected a couple of pipe fittings from the rack and followed John up to the register.
“And a bag of popcorn, and that’ll do it.”
He tucked his purchase under his arm and slowly made his way back to his truck, munching on his popcorn. Ken enjoyed taking in the Christmas spectacle the little downtown had magically become. The mayor’s office and local merchant association colluded each year to wait to decorate the stores and streets until fairly late in the evening on Thanksgiving. It was one of the most anticipated events of the year, bringing in locals and weekenders alike in droves first thing the next day, like children on Christmas morning, excited to see what Santa Claus silently slipped in their stockings while they slept.
Ken’s phone chirped. He took a look at the caller ID, took in a sharp breath and answered the call.
“Hey yourself, baby brother!”
Joan, an affable, warm-hearted woman, was Ken’s half-sister and his senior by eight years. She was the only one of seven half-siblings with whom he spent a significant part of his childhood. Their mother died in a car accident when Ken was in his last year in college, and during those first months after her death, Ken looked to Joan more as a parent than a sister. After that, Joan never quite kicked the habit of playing the parent.
“What’s up?” Ken asked.
“What’s up? It’s Thanksgiving! I meant to call last night, but things were just crazy here. Sandy’s flight was delayed, and Donovan and Cheryl’s baby was very sick, so, well, you know…crazy! I’m sorry I didn’t call. What’d you do? Did you go somewhere? Dinner with friends, or something?” Joan asked.
“You had Sandy there this year?”
“Yeah! Isn’t that great? You know she and Mitch split up a couple of years ago, and their kids are all over the globe, so it was on my list to invite her some year. It was great seeing her! She said to say hello. Anyway, what did you do?
“Oh, well, uh, I went to the Lutheran church for a couple of hours, in the afternoon. Helped them clean up after their annual community turkey feed. Great thing they do. They gave me enough leftovers to last me a week, at least. I watched football the rest of the night. Turkey dinner with all the fixings and non-stop football. Happy as a clam.”
“Oh, Kenny. I thought maybe…oh, never mind. I mean, well…Did you hear from anybody?”
“Like, who? ”
“Dale or Ben, or any of them?”
“Not likely either of us will ever hear from them again.”
Joan sighed. “I still don’t get it. I mean, me, OK, whatever. But you? You’re family!”
“Who knows what their deal is, Joanie. Frankly, I stopped thinking about it long ago.”
But Ken hadn’t stopped thinking about it. As much as he wished he could dismiss all thoughts of family once and for all, the holidays roll around to remind him how alone he really was.
Growing up, family was everything. The more, the better, was Ken’s parents’ thinking. Both were from large families, had been previously married, his father twice before, and had children from all previous marriages. For Ken’s parents, it was a fun, wild ride. As he used to like to say, they put the capital “B” in “Blended Family.”
His relatives didn’t approve of his parents’ lifestyle, but time was Ken considered his relationship with all his half-siblings as pretty good. However, after his mother died, and then his father shortly after Ken’s first wife divorced him, his relations demonstrated how deep their disapproval ran by cutting off all communication. Nevertheless, Ken made a regular effort to keep in touch with all of them: aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, but his phone calls, letters and messages went unanswered. Except for Joan, no one ever reached out again with so much as a pre-printed Christmas card.
Ken thanked Joan for calling and promised to come for a visit sometime after the New Year. He wouldn’t, of course, but he knew it made her feel better to hear him say he would. He climbed into his truck and drove home.
For a long while he stood on his back porch and stared out at his forested back lot as the afternoon light waned into twilight. He enjoyed this time of day, the way the setting sun backlit the tall trees, creating a shadow play across the small meadow leading up to his porch. The temperature made a sharp drop, but Ken did not move inside or make an effort to get a coat. He was too deep in thought to take much notice.
Why Ken’s family was not more like John Chen’s he could not figure. Had his family been even just a little inclusive and far less judgemental, he might have thought differently about having children. He’d still be married. His children would be grown by now. They might have a brood of their own. He’d be a grandfather. He’d have a family. His own family. He counted his lucky stars neither of his parents lived to see him like this, alone in his self-exile.
The twilight gave way to November’s early nightfall. Ken could barely make out the black outline of the giant grey owl that often came around his place, slowly sweeping by on its way to its favorite perch in the ancient cedar next to his house. It’s nest was just down the hill. Ken’s neighbors said its fledglings hatched fairly late this year, and one was still about. Even the lone owl has a family, Ken thought.
“Maybe, I’ll get lucky, like you,” Ken said to the owl. “Get a late start. Maybe some retired divorcee will move to town next year. Maybe Don won’t recover and leave Alice a widow. She’s a good-looking and nice enough woman. Maybe I’ll settle down with her, even enjoy having her grandchildren over when they come for a visit in the summer, and maybe we’ll go see them for a week during the holidays.”
Ken waited, but the owl made no reply. He turned around and looked inside his empty house.
“Maybe, just maybe, before it’s too late. Who knows.”