Late January 2017 Lawndale, Maryland
Jeff Altenburg quickly ducked into Bufflehead Bay a restaurant that sat near Lawndale's marina escaping the cold driving rain. He was ambivalent about the luncheon date. Earlier in the month, just a few days after he arrived in Lawndale, he ran into Joey an old high school classmate of his. Over fourteen years came and went since the last time they saw each other. Neither had the time at that moment to speak for long so born was a plan to meet later.
Once they had been close becoming good friends after Joey moved to Lawndale in middle school but they began to drift apart after Jeff quit the football team during their senior year. The contacts between them grew less and less frequent as their lives diverged afterward. Jeff left for the navy three days after their high school graduation spending most of his six-year enlistment in California. Joey won a baseball scholarship to a university in Pennsylvania. By the time Jeff got out of the navy his friend had been drafted and was working his way toward the major leagues.
"Well, well, well, if it isn't one of the three J's."
Jeff looked around. "Mack," he exclaimed warmly shaking his hand. "I figured you would have put a thousand miles between you and Lawndale. How have you been?"
"Good," Mack replied. "This is my place."
Jeff glanced quickly around the packed room. "If this crowd is typical you are doing good."
"Heard you joined the navy. Still in, Jeffy?" Mack asked.
"No. Did six years then got out," he replied. "And call me Jeff, please."
"1Corinthians 13, verse 11," Mack quipped.
"When I became a man I put away childish things," Jeff quoted.
Mack nodded. "I don't remember you having a spiritual bent."
"A lot of changes over the years," he replied.
"So where did you end up?" Mack asked.
"I was stationed in California. Stayed out there to go to school at California Republic. Been living out there ever since until a couple of weeks ago," replied Jeff.
"What brought you back to Maryland?" asked Mack.
Jeff's face clouded. "Drunk driver killed my brother-in-law on New Year's. My sister survived but she's facing a long rehab. My parents are up in the years so I'm here to take care of her and the kids."
Mack nodded his own face showing sadness. "I forgot that you were Gwen's little brother. They were here that night. Had an early supper before going to whatever party they had been invited. If you need anything let me know."
"Thanks, Mack," he replied. "Right now all I need is to find Joey. I'm supposed to meet him."
"He and Jamie White are awaiting in a booth in the barroom," Mack told him.
"It's the three J's together again," Mack chuckled.
Jeff snorted. "I left high school a long time ago."
"My own experience is that the past has a habit of reappearing when you least expect it," Mack said. "Whether that's good or bad is generally up to you."
"Still the team captain looking out for us," Jeff quipped.
"Like a daddy seahorse," Mack joked back. "Seriously though. Warren was good people. You need something don't hesitate to ask. Now, go see the guys."
Keeping his eyes forward as he wove his way to the barroom Jeff did not see that someone spotted him from a table in the corner.
"Isn't that Jeffy Altenburg?" Quinn Morgendorffer asked her table companions.
The others turned their heads around.
"I'm not sure," Tiffany said. "It's been a long time."
"I think so," Sandy Griffin said after a moment.
"I haven't heard anything about him in ages," Stacy added.
"All I know is that, like you, he joined the military right after high school," Quinn replied.
Stacy nodded. She remembered that, unlike herself, he did not even take the summer off leaving for basic training just a few days after graduation. In hindsight, she thought he probably did the smart thing. She did not truly enjoy that final summer. Major life changes on the near horizon cast a shadow over everything she did. It was a relief when August rolled around and she boarded the bus to Training Center Cape May to start her enlistment in the Coast Guard.
"Maybe we're salmon and Lawndale is our home stream," Quinn mused. "No matter where we go eventually we are all compelled by some deep instinct to return."
The image amused Stacy. The four of them left town at the end of that final summer yet despite everyone swearing that Lawndale had seen the last of them here they all were.
Tiffany was the first of them to arrive back in Lawndale within months of graduating from college. She had a husband in tow to boot. She made a good match. Johnston Bradford IV was a scion of wealth and as dumb as a box of rocks. How the two of them managed to get through Middleton College in only five years was beyond Stacy. Tiffany worked for a couple of years in the human resources field. She then became a stay-at-home mom with the arrival of her first child a son that they strained their imaginations and named Johnston Bradford V. Nonetheless, they were one of the happiest couples she knew. Perhaps, she often thought, ignorance is bliss after all.
Quinn matriculated at Pepperhill University in California. After a few years working in Los Angeles, she came back to Maryland starting her own marketing firm in 2012. Everyone was happy for her but found it hilarious when in 2015 she married an orthopedic surgeon named Linus Quinn who like to refer to himself as Dr. Quinn, Medicine Man. She kept her own name.
Stacy herself returned next the following year. For most of her four years in the Coast Guard, she was stationed in Texas. She stayed there while studying to become a paralegal but moved to Florida afterward. She lived in the Sunshine State for five years gaining experience in her chosen profession and earning a history degree from Coastal Florida University on the side just because it interested her.
Sandi moved back home just a few months ago when her latest marriage ended. Lawndale was a safe haven. A place she could lick her wounds after her third divorce. The schools were good also. A major consideration as she now had five children. Because of her background in advertising, Quinn hired her allowing Sandi the flexibility of schedule that she needed.
The four socialized regularly but made it a point to have girls only lunch every few weeks.
"Hey, there's the man himself," Joey said rising from the booth.
Jamie also stood. "Fourteen years," he said shaking his hand. "It's been too long."
Joey was more exuberant. He pulled Jeff into a rough bear hug slapping him on the back.
"Careful with that ring," Jeff joked.
Joey could not resist a glance at his World Series Championship ring. It was actually a copy. The real one being tucked away in a safety deposit box.
"I'm not vain, really," he lightly said sitting back down. "But people expect to see it especially with the job."
Injuries cut Joey's baseball career short but he parleyed eight seasons in the majors and a master's degree in Sports Management into being hired as Lawndale University's Athletic Director last fall.
Jeff slid into the booth. Jamie sat next to him. "Joey told me why you came back. I'm sorry about your brother-in-law. How's your sister holding up?"
"She's...well, she's heartbroken. On top of that, she's dealing with her own severe injuries. And then there are the kids. It's a mess," Jeff said.
Jamie nodded soberly. He could not image life without his wife. He had been with Juliet for thirteen years, married for over eleven of those having walked down the aisle the summer between their junior and senior years at Newport Universiy. Just the idea of her not being there was too awful to contemplate. Having to date again would scare him. More terrifying, the notion of raising their daughters on his own. Sure he would have his mother and sisters around but that would not be the same for girls.
He never knew Jeffy's sister well. Actually, he was not even certain that he remembered her name correctly but his heart went out to her anyway. And to her children. And to Jeffy.
"Let me give you my number, man," he said pulling out his cell phone. "If you need anything don't hesitate to call."
"Same here, Jeffy," Joey added extracting his own device.
"Thanks, I appreciate it," Jeff replied. "But do me a favor, will ya? Call me Jeff. I dropped the y years ago."
"Yeah, I guess if you're not in The Family Circus Jeff is the way to go," Jamie said. "But I'm not going to call you Jefferson no matter how often you ask."
Jeff chuckled shaking his head. "I get the tradition of giving the oldest son his mother's maiden name as his first name but it wouldn't have bothered me if mom and dad went another way."
"I think I'll avoid that tradition if I have a son," Jamie deadpanned.
Joey laughed but it took Jeff a moment to recall that Juliet White's maiden name was Snow. She never considered hyphenating their last names when they got married.
"Even if you did your son would still get less grief about his name then me," Joey said lightly.
The three of them shared a laugh. In 1984 when Mr. and Mrs. Chandler named their newborn son after her father, Joseph Ross, calling him Joey from the cradle on no one batted an eye. A decade late the jokes started. Joey long since gave up trying to swim against that current. He even used the Friends theme song as his walk up music when he still played.
"So what's your plan?" Jamie asked.
Jeff shrugged. "It'll depend on how well Gwen recovers but for at least the next six months I'll be a live-in caregiver."
Joey squirmed uncomfortably but spoke anyway. "I did okay in baseball, you know, financially. If you need money somewhere along the line..."
"Thanks," Jeff said genuinely touched by the generosity of people that he had not much to do with beyond emails, Facebook postings, and Christmas cards for years. "But Warren had a ton of insurance. He had it set up to where the mortgage would get paid off if he died and education trust funds for both kids plus, of course, just straight up normal life insurance on his own and through his company. And Gwen has great health insurance that'll pay most if not all of her medical bills."
"A lot of what I've been doing the last couple of weeks is getting with all the insurers so, you know, ninety-nine problems but money ain't one."
"Good," Joey mummered.
"I hate why you came back but I'm glad you are," Jamie said. "I hope that once your sister is back on her feet you'll stay in the area. High school's ancient history but I've missed having you around."
"Me, too," Joey agreed. "You were my friend when I was just another gawky idiot roaming the halls of North Middle School."
"Must suck to be rich and famous," joked Jeff. "But I missed you guys, too. I haven't really made any friends since I left especially anywhere near as tight as we once were. Maybe it's me. Maybe it's something about being an adult. I don't know."
"No, it's you," Joey said.
Jeff chuckled. "Yeah, I'll take the Vegas odds on that."
Mack stopped by their booth. "You guys ordered yet?"
"No, not yet," Joey answered.
"I haven't even looked at the menu," Jeff said.
"There are some women who would like for you three to join them," Mack told them.
Jamie quickly raised his left hand pointing to his wedding ring. "Happily married."
"Relax. So are half of them," Mack chuckled. "You guys remember Quinn Morgendorffer and that group? She noticed Jeff when he walked in and asked after him. They all lit up when they heard you two were here also. So you guys up for a mini reunion?"
"Seriously? the Fashion Club?" Jeff asked.
"I didn't know any of them were still around," Joey said.
"Like you guys they left then drifted back," Mack replied.
The trio saw a couple of servers pushing another table against the women's table as they walked over. The ordering of lunch came immediately on the heels of a barrage of brief hugs. A round of cliff note bios with a general Q&A dominated the conversation at the start. Jamie politely but firmly let everyone know that his two tours in Iraq was something that he would not discuss. The subject of her three divorces was equally off limits for Sandi. Jeff got several more offers of help when he mentioned why he was in Lawndale. He added four more numbers to his phone.
I think you need help more than me he thought when Sandi gave him her number. Why your marriages failed is none of my business anyway but children from each one? Triplet boys under two years old. A daughter barely eight. Another one just about to turn six in a few months. Holy Cow woman! Daycare or not that's gotta be a whirlwind. Lunchs like this must be as precious as sapphires to you.
"So what is a paralegal exactly?" Jeff asked Stacy.
She smiled. "Easiest way to describe a paralegal is an attorney's assisstant. I do a lot of research, compile documentation, write up reports. Basically the grunt work of a case. Of course, I'm making it sound more glamorous than it is."
"You like it?"
"It has it's moments," she replied. "But robotics sounds far more interesting."
"It has it's moments especially when you put together something that hasn't been done before," Jeff replied.
"Ever build any of those fighting robots like on tv?" Joey asked.
"Yeah," Jeff replied. "Hadn't had much time in the last few years but it's a hoot, win or lose."
"I remember that I had a couple of math classes with you in high school," Quinn lightly said. "Let's just say that I wouldn't have expected you to become an engineer."
Jeff chuckled. "To be clear, I'm a technician, not an engineer. My degree is Robotics Engineering Technology but yeah, it probably would surprise a lot of our teachers, too. I gotta admit that the two calculus classes I had to take were the hardest classes for me by far. I had to live in the math lab driving the tutors crazy with my utter incomprehension. My final grades won't earn me a 'thumbs up' from the ghosts of Newton and Leibniz but I managed to pass both in the end."
"The ghosts of who?" Tiffany asked.
"Sir Issac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz invented calculus in the sixteen hundreds," Sandi told her.
Her statement garnered her several stares.
"I watch The Big Bang Theory," she added by way of explanation.
"I saw you play in person several times, Joey," Stacy said. "Mostly in DC, Baltimore, or Tampa but I caught a game six years ago in Yankee Stadium. I was up there in connection to a case. You hit three doubles that evening."
"I think I was at the same game," Sandi exclaimed. "My husband at the time was a big Yankees fan."
"So is my husband," Tiffany drawled.
"Dodgers rule," Quinn quipped. "But Medicine Man cheers for the Orioles."
"A man after my own heart," Jamie replied.
As the conversation turned more toward reminisces of high school Jeff found himself withdrawing somewhat. The memories were not bad. He had a great time back in the day. It was that looking back he did not like who he was then. You live, you learn he knew. Still so much time wasted on meaningless things. College should not have been as difficult as it was for him but he never applied himself in high school until his senior year. To be certain the six years between Lawndale High and California Republic University did not help either. It made acclimatizing to an academic environment rough at first but the navy also gave him the discipline to flourish.
Already familiar with the women Stacy's attention focused mainly on the three J's although when the term popped in her head she dismissed it. Back in school, it fit. They were practically interchangeable each being bland, a bit stupid, harmlessly hormonal, and almost cartoonish. The intervening years molded them into men very distinct from each other.
Jamie, she thought, changed the most. He struck her as one of those quietly self-confident guys that did not feel the need to prove anything to anybody, absolutely comfortable in his own skin. Whether it came from becoming a husband and father at a young age or being a military policeman or whatever experiences he had in Iraq. Probably all three and more about which he had not spoken.
Joey was still outgoing and boisterous but there was no way he could have reached the professional heights he did without inner resilience and focus. More evidence was earning a master's degree while playing baseball with its too long season and road trips. Unlike a lot of athletes that she read about, he appeared to be transitioning away from competition smoothly. Of course, his job kept him in the sports arena somewhat.
She found it amusing that Joey and Jamie were brothers-in-law for reasons she could not pinpoint. Joey having married the oldest of Jamie's two sisters, Jillian, a few years ago. Jamie's wife was named Juliet. Why were names that began with J so popular in her generation?
Stacy could not draw a bead on Jeffy, Jeff she reminded herself. There was a nebulous quality about him. He answered all the questions put to him in a straightforward seemingly truthful manner yet it was as if she could only catch glimpses of him. Perhaps it was grief. Perhaps stress.
Quinn nabbed the check.
"If anyone from the IRS asks, this was a consumer focus test group," she breezily said handing the server her company credit card. "That's what my accountants are going to call it."
Jeff looked at his watch as the party broke up. They chatted longer then he thought. He had only thirty-five minutes to pick up his niece and nephew at their elementary school. Sandi had the same predicament. The conversation revealed that her eldest daughter, Beatrix, was in the same grade as Cooper, his nephew. Her youngest daughter, Alyssandra, was even in the same kindergarten class as Eleanor, his niece. Sandi quickly made her excuses but they planned to introduce the children to each other over the weekend in case circumstances dictated that one or the other pick up all four. A matter made easy as her house was only two blocks from Gwen's.
"I think we have to clear it with the school though, Jeff," Sandi said as she left.
Jeff concluded that while Lawndale had grown somewhat since he left, it was still a smallish town. He had more than enough time even taking it slow on the wet roads.
Stacy fell into step with him as they exited the restaurant. "What are your thoughts?"
He pondered for a moment. "It's strange and familiar at the same time if that makes any sense."
"I've read that the reason you can't go home again is that you change not your home," she replied. "The seven of us had lunch together many times as teenagers. Today we had lunch together but we're all over thirty. Familiar and strange."
Jeff shrugged. "I would rather everyone forgot about Jeffy. I didn't like him that much."
Stacy nodded. "You remember what an emotional wreck I was? I didn't like myself either but you build a better future or sink with the past. I rather look forward than back."
"Looks like you got it all together from where I stand," he replied.
"I'm content," she said. "I'm not living a fairy tale but I'm living my life."
"I not sure how many people can say that," Jeff mused.
He shook his head. "Not yet," he said stopping by a dark gray Honda Odyssey.
Stacy looked the car over. "Somehow I don't see you as a minivan guy."
"It's Gwen's. It has the decal that permits me to pick up the kids," he explained gesturing to the windshield. "Plus the car seats. I drive a Chevrolet Colorado."
"A pickup truck makes more sense," she said.
"Yeah, I like it better," he replied. "This thing looks like a tricked out hearse."
Stacy laughed. The same thought occurred to her everytime an Odyssey passed her.
They stood awkwardly for a moment before Stacy asked: "Can I give you some advice?"
"Sure," he replied. "Lord knows I could use anything helpful at the moment."
She placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Just remember that you're only a man. It's going to be hard for you. You've never dealt with children, let alone children who are grieving for their father and scared for their mother. Nor have you had an adult who will be as dependent on you as your sister will be for a while. Stay patient and don't be too proud to ask for help. My house isn't even a half mile away from yours and I'm single. I have no obligations."
"How can you be single?" Jeff asked.
"I'm content," Stacy repeating her earlier comment while smiling at the implied compliment. "It will take a remarkable man for me to risk losing that."
"Well, that leaves me out," Jeff said. "I'm hardly remarkable."
"You willingly gave up your life to come here," Stacy pointed out.
"She's my sister," he asked. "What else could I do?"
"A lot of other things," she said walking away. "You're a good man, Jeff Aldenburg. You have my number."
He watched her for several heartbeats before climbing into he minivan. He kept his eyes on the slick roads all the way to the school but a doe-eyed woman stayed on his mind.