When Henry Novak was thirteen years old, he was expelled from Georgia O’Keeffe Middle School for purchasing marijuana on the playground.
“We’re not mad,” his father told him in the car after the hearing. “We’re just-”
“Disappointed?” Henry asked hopefully.
“Profoundly disturbed. Couldn’t you have waited a couple years? Couldn’t you have been careful?” Their rusting minivan was filled with surly relations, all of whom were on their way to the annual Novak family reunion. The conjunction of the reunion and the hearing was an awkward scheduling conflict that Henry’s father, the host, hadn’t been able to resolve due to the rigid nature of the Madison Metropolitan School District’s disciplinary process and the needs of the long travelling, long suffering multitude of Novaks.
“So this is why he’s been so hungry lately,” remarked Aunt Karen dryly, a statement that met with a chorus of curmudgeonly approval from the cramped bench seats behind her.
“Will you put away your phone, Henry?” His father half-heartedly admonished. “This is family time.”
Henry rode in moody silence all the way to the reunion’s venue, a spacious park shelter in a pretty lakeside park. After he raided the potluck table, Henry retreated to the seclusion of a loan oak tree that stood a hundred or so yards from the shelter. He nibbled on pierogies and toothpick-impaled cubes of cheese. In the distance, he could hear the lascivious rattle of Great Uncle Rowan’s laughter, and farther off, the sound of his father playing the accordion.
Under the oak tree, Henry sat in spiteful observance of the park’s beauty. The cliche of May unfolded before him in violet blooms and white dandelion puffs, preserved as mortal crowns atop drying stems by the complete absence of wind. Lake Mendota was at peak clarity, thriving in the late-spring sweet-spot between the withdrawal of the ice sheet and the exponential growth of warm-weather algae. He began to contemplate the magnitude of his misfortune. Why was he the one to get caught? Everyone did it. Even more unjust was that he was being punished by his parents–as if being forced away from school and all his friends wasn’t enough–when he knew very well that his father kept a rainy day weed stash beneath the workbench in the garage. Henry’s father was a CPA, the first Novak male in living memory to graduate from college, vote Democrat, and avoid the hallowed ascent of the Twelve Steps. He was the kind of son who only believed in God when his parents were in town and the kind of father who was only straight-edge when his kid was in trouble. After someone–Henry didn’t know who–told on Henry and his friends for buying weed from some older kids after school, his father had declared a two-month moratorium on all socialization and vowed to put Henry to work through his contacts at the community center. That work, Henry was informed, would commence posthaste.
He was stripping a fallen branch to its bare hide, leaf by leaf, when he heard the flat-footed, slack-jawed advance of Cousin Lexi.
“Your acne is getting bad. Is that because of the drugs?” Lexi was about the same age as Henry. She wore bedazzled Doc Martens, a pleated black skirt, and a faded Kerry-Edwards campaign shirt that had obviously originally belonged to someone much larger than her. Lexi’s spare, white-blonde hair was done up in a tight bun per the decree of her parents, who knew that such a configuration discouraged her from indulging the nervous tic of tearing out strands. Her eyes were deep, mascara-replete pits in which the pendulum of manic skepticism swung back and forth.
“My acne is fine,” answered Henry. “I barely do–did–drugs anyway.”
“Do you have any?”
“Any what?” Henry returned his attention to the branch, doing his utmost to exude disinterest.
“You know–weed. I want to try it.” Lexi pressed down on her right nostril with a single raven-black fingernail, then casually leaned sideways and blew out the left one.
“No I don’t, and I wouldn’t give you any anyway.”
“I haven’t seen you in two years. We’re not even facebook friends.” It was true. Lexi’s family lived in Indianapolis, just a state over from Henry’s, but they seldom visited. According to Aunt Karen, herself a resident of nearby Gary, this isolation was at the behest of Lexi’s anxious, Volvo-driving father, who disliked his wife’s family and car trips with equal measure.
“It’s not my fault it’s been so long,” protested Lexi. “Our family just fuckin’ sucks.”
“True that. But I still wouldn’t smoke weed with you. You’d probably freak and tell my parents and get us both in trouble. I’m already grounded.”
“Sounds like you have trust issues.” Lexi told him with an impish smirk.
“Everybody knows you’re the one with issues in the family.”
Lexi turned away, and for the briefest moment, made a sound like a broken whistle. She turned back and raised her purse to reveal a protuberant bottleneck, her voice a shiver, her eyes moistened by an inceptive swell that threatened to render Blitzkrieg upon her abundant mascara.
“I stole some wine from the party. For you. I thought you might want to trade for some weed. But if you don’t want it–if I’m a freak–that’s fine. I’ll drink it myself.” She turned again and stalked back towards the party. Henry watched the indignant swing of her hips, looked down to consider the branch for a moment, then sighed and leapt to his feet.
“Lexi! Hey Lexi!” He called. She stopped. “Look, I’m sorry. I’m kind of a dick sometimes. I’m kind of a dick a lot. I didn’t mean to be mean to you.”
“Yeah, you are.” She said, her words still thick with anger. “Is that because of the weed?”
“No, I, uh, think it runs in the family.”
Lexi giggled. “So why’d you do it? Smoke weed, I mean.”
“I thought it would be fun, I guess,” lied Henry. “I laughed a lot.”
“My parents said I should stay away from you. That you’re a bad influence and all that.”
“Hey, you’re the one who stole the wine.”
“Speaking of which…”
“We should go drink it.”
“Oh. I know a good place across the bridge.” He stammered slightly. “My friend goes there sometimes.”
Ninety minutes later, Henry Novak got his first kiss sitting atop a set of wavy, peacock-blue monkey bars.
“I didn’t mean what I said about your acne,” said Lexi. “You’re still cute.”
“Your dad would have a coronary if he heard you say that. So would mine.”
Lexi smiled. “I know.” Two streaks of black lipstick scrolled across her lower incisors like muddy tire tracks on driven snow. Henry grinned back. When Aunt Karen found them that evening, Lexi was busy emptying the contents of her stomach into a nearby trashcan.
“You’re going to ruin your future,” said Aunt Karen.
“I know,” said Henry, a grin still on his lips.
In light of Henry’s new transgressions, it was decided by some ethereal family council that harsher punishments were warranted. He was sent to live with his grandparents in Grand Rapids, Michigan for the remainder of the spring and summer, so that the flame of his youthful vagary might be extinguished under the Marine Corps-hardened thumb of his Grandad. Every day began with “PT,” a five mile run followed by a series of anaerobic exercises. As Henry jogged, Grandad would follow close behind in his Buick, jeering and shouting vulgar platitudes seemingly at random. (“Faster, boy! Run like you have balls!”) If, at the end of the five mile course, Henry’s pace and attitude had been to Grandad’s liking, he would drive him back to the house for breakfast. If not, he would make an abrupt, screeching U-turn and leave Henry to find his own way back. Breakfast, regardless of whether Henry earned a ride home, meant lecture time. Each day it was the same. Grandad made corned beef hash and eggs, Grandmom worked on her Sudoku, and Henry did his best to read while they pointedly discussed the certain doom that awaited him on his current life path.
Said Grandmom: “Family is the most important thing. Faith is a close second.”
Said Grandad: “Hopefully you’ll learn that lesson before it’s too late.”
Said Grandmom: “Family will always be there for you. Even when you’re broke, strung out, and alone.”
Said Grandad: “Which you will be if you don’t stay away from that shite.”
Having heard Grandad curse in the past, Henry was obliged to stifle a laugh at this new pseudo-Scottish pronunciation of “shit.”
“What?” He asked, with an incredulous half-smile.
Grandad challenged him with his mutilating Vietnam stare.
“That’s how it should be said, how our ancestors said it. Don’t test me…”
Aware of his Grandad’s predilection for long rants, Henry decided not to point out that their progenitors were from Poland’s Lower Silesian region, and not, in fact, Scotland. As the summer continued, Grandad obstinately stood by his use of the word, much to Henry’s bafflement. It wasn’t until a few years later, after his introduction to the work of Danny Boyle, that he came to suspect Grandad had watched Trainspotting to prepare for his stay.
Henry spent most of the summer occupied with Grandad’s Draconian exercise regimen, his ill-fated attempt to teach Henry Latin (“It isn’t a dead language unless I say it is, boy!”) and the menial tasks assigned to him by Grandmom. On Sundays, they went to church. After the service, the congregation would meet in the basement annex for the requisite coffee and donuts. Henry sat and watched while his grandparents and their friends played Canasta and Euchre. (“Bet you expected us to play Bridge, huh, boy! Wrong! I hate that shite!”) Deprived of both his phone and access to the internet, he had no contact with his friends in Wisconsin. They’d probably replaced him by now, he thought. They were busy playing basketball and buying new clothes for high school and going to the pool to look at girls. In his rare moments of alone time, he read Dune. (“Put down that damn book, boy. I’m talking to you!”) During the day he would retreat to the back deck and sit in the sun and read. It seemed to him that his reading was less likely to be interrupted in favor of some arbitrary chore if his grandparents saw that he was outside. (“At least he’s sulking in the sun.”) At night, he read by flashlight under the covers, so as to avoid the wrath of Grandad, who swore (quite literally) by the value of a disciplined sleep schedule. The once-white bedsheet was stippled with dozens of overlapping neutral-toned ectoplasmic deposits, the results of those few Dune scenes in which even the smallest elements of titillation could be found. Viewed from directly above, the bedsheet resembled either a map of the greater Minnesota watershed or an out of control Venn Diagram.
One evening, Henry sat in the den playing chess with Grandmom, whose skill on the board was the stuff of legends. Grandad was stretched out on a nearby recliner, yelling at Nat Geo (“Utter shite! I’ve never seen a more shameful display of cultural reductionism!”), a nightly pastime he cheerfully referred to as “relaxation.” Grandmom was nothing if not a multi-tasker. As she swiftly dismantled Henry’s pawn wall, she also managed to impart another in a series of of moral lessons.
“Do you want to be the kind of person who lies to his family?” She asked.
“No,” said Henry.
“Listen to your Grandmom, boy! What she’s saying is important.”
“Yes,” murmured Henry.
“The marijuana, the lying were bad enough,” she continued. “But what is shameful, I mean really shameful, is that after all that, you still didn’t learn your lesson. You got drunk at the family picnic. At the family picnic! You don’t have to drink, you know. Just look at your Grandad. He hasn’t had a drink in twenty six years.”
“Damn straight!” Roared Grandad. Nat Geo was on commercial break.
“But you know what’s worse, Henry?”
“That you went and convinced your poor cousin to drink with you. You manipulated her.”
“I’m sorry.” Henry kept his focus on the game. He’d heard all this before.
“She has issues, you know. Like her father. In the head.”
“I know, Grandmom.”
“You’d better not misbehave when your she comes to visit in July.”
Henry broke his concentration, surprised.
“Lexi’s coming here?”
“Yes, with your Aunt Karen. For the Fourth. They’re staying for a week.”
“Why is she coming here?” He felt a surge of excitement.
Grandmom paused for a moment and looked in the direction of her husband. “Her parents are separating. They thought it would be good for her to get away. We thought so too.”
“Aunt Angela is divorcing Uncle Mark? Why?”
Grandmom paused again. “Seperating. And that’s really none of our business.”
“Oh for chrissakes Catherine, let’s just tell the boy!” Hollered Grandad. “It’s no secret. The bastard was having an affair.”
“But it’s really none of our business.” Grandmom insisted. “And you’d better behave yourself while your cousin’s here. We’ll be watching.”
“Don’t worry about me, Grandmom,” intoned Henry, “I’ve learned my lesson.”
On the morning of July Fourth, Grandad had a dentist’s appointment. (“I’ll show ‘em what ‘advanced enamel decay’ is, with my fists!”) Henry did an abbreviated PT session alone and returned to find Aunt Karen in the kitchen.
“Where’s Grandmom?” he asked.
“Dunno,” replied Aunt Karen, who was absentmindedly cleaning out an old bird feeder in the sink. “She left a note saying she was going on a walk.”
“I sent her to the Meijer’s on Fordham to pick up some splenda for this afternoon.”
“I can go to Meijer’s in case she needs help.”
“Why would she need help?” Aunt Karen shut off the faucet.
“Well, you know, they don’t have Meijer’s in Indiana, so…”
“I think she’ll manage.” Aunt Karen eyed Henry malevolently. “Actually, now that you mention it, I have a job for you. Go get some wood from the shed. The stack on the patio is running low.”
Henry reluctantly submitted to his Aunt’s demand and began his leg-tender trek up the densely vegetated hill adjacent to the house. In the months and years that followed, he would often look back and wish he had moved more slowly towards his objective. A leisurely approach would’ve allowed him to hear and avoid the horror that lurked at the top of the hill. But he was excited to see Lexi and so he hurried, his brush-crunching feet on a fatal course straight to the woodshed, deaf to the dulcet cadence of ecstasy that surely must’ve slipped out to fill the spellbound ears of woodland creatures. Henry opened the woodshed door and found Grandmom and the Fred-the-neighbor.
“Hey Fred-the-neighbor,” he said.
“Hey,” said Fred-the-neighbor.
“What?” Grandmom later opined. “It works. It’s been working for thirty happy years now.”
“Don’t look at us like that, boy!” shouted Grandad. “Our polyamorous relationship may threaten your hegemonic agenda, but that’s no excuse to get cheeky.”
When Henry Novak was in college, he often told friends the tale of his summer in Michigan and the surprise encounter he had in a ramshackle woodshed there. The story always ended with the same punchline: three seconds of sheer panic, three years of therapy. This was only half-true, because his parent’s health insurance didn’t cover weekly therapy except in cases of extreme trauma, and Henry wasn’t particularly in need of therapy, anyway.
What is true is that later that night, Henry and Lexi sat in their grandparents’ driveway and watched fireworks go off over the Thornapple River.
“Hey,” Lexi cooed between bursts, “do you wanna go for a walk?”
“You know,” Henry said softly, half to himself, “I’m actually enjoying the fireworks.”
# # #
Miles Varana’s work has appeared in a variety of publications, most recently SOFTBLOW, After the Pause, Chicago Literati, Yellow Chair Review, and Clear Poetry. He has worked previously as a staff reader and managing editor at Hawai’i Pacific Review. Miles lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where he enjoys rainy days, naps, and copious amounts of sushi.