Read American Fraternity Man Online

Authors: Nathan Holic

Tags: #General Fiction

American Fraternity Man (9 page)

“Nothing!” I said from beneath the table. “I’m sure it’s around!” Rising, banging my shoulder against the table again, nearly knocking over the cornbread.

“Oh, you can’t find the spoons?” my mother asked.

“Sometimes you have to
ask
to rent serving equipment,” my father said. “They don’t always just
give
it to you. Did you ask?”

“Edwin,” I said. “Did they say anything about serving equipment?”

And now Edwin was walking toward us empty-handed, disappointment etched into his face. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t remember them saying anything.”

“Didn’t ask them many questions at all, did you, Charles?” my father asked.

“The two-hour window…that wasn’t my fault.”

“You’ve probably got something in your kitchen,” he said.

“It’s locked, Dad.

“Oh. Right.”

But he knew. He knew.

“Why is the kitchen locked?” my mother asked.

“They pay a staff,” my father said. “They’re not allowed inside their own kitchen. Maybe next time I should bring my own utensils.”

“That’s silly,” my mother said.

“Hungry!” someone shouted.

“I’ve
explained
this to you!” I said, trying to keep my voice down.

Jenn approaching now, cranberry-vodka in hand, her crew of sorority friends fanning out behind her with looks of mild puzzlement. As she passed the tall man in the gray slacks, I noticed that his drink was empty
now, too; he was standing in a static line, eating ice cubes, eyebrows raised in frustration.

“Why don’t we just use the plastic utensils to scoop it out?” my mother asked.

“That’ll have to do,” Edwin said. “No other option.”

“Charles, just grab some spoons and forks
,” my father said. “It won’t be pretty, but it’s better than nothing.”

“I’d prefer to use a serving
spoon,” I said. “It’s got to be around here.”

“Charles. We’re hungry. A plastic fork will work.”

“I can find it. The event
deserves
better.”

“It’s going to get cold, Charles.”

The long, long line—over a hundred people by now, parents, children, all the khaki shorts and polo shirts and button-downs and ties and jean skirts and white pants, all of my fraternity brothers holding Heineken bottles, everyone pulled in from the living room and the courtyard and the game room—they were all looking at
him
now. My father. They knew what was happening, and what they saw was this: little Charles, the supposed president, rummaging around, panicked, an empty plastic bag in one hand. Parents looking at my father as if he was the sensible one, as if…as if…who the hell was
I
? Why couldn’t I just clear out of the way and let the man do his job? As if my father had planned this event, as if I was his mere assistant.
For fuck’s sake, let us eat
!

“Fine,” I said. “Plastic utensils.”

And a cheer arose from the crowd. “All
right
!” one man yelled.

“Teamwork,” Edwin said, clapped my father’s back. “Nice work, Mr. Washington.”

My father opened the Ziploc bag of plastic utensils, dumped them out on the table beside our now-silly-looking glass bowls of barbecue sauce. And even though my father had been first in line, he stepped aside, motioning for the next couple to fill their plates, and as they stepped past him en route to pulled pork, they smiled and thanked my father, and he waited until the very end, a hundred people, two hundred, after the last couple—who shook his hand and called him a gentleman—before he finally stepped back into place in front of the pulled pork tub. But before doing so, he turned to me and said, “Come and grab something to eat, Charles,” the same voice that any of the parents in the room would have used to reprimand a 10-year-old. And he didn’t move to fill his own plate until I’d done so.

*

After dinner ended—only scraps of pork and burnt toast left at the tables, a line of trash bags stuffed with sloppy plastic plates and used silverware—it was time for the academic awards presentation, and then the cake. And, of course, the lavalier.

This was
my farewell, my personal send-off, a memory that I hoped I could keep close for the full summer of training and then sixteen weeks of Fall travel and then sixteen weeks of Spring travel, like baby pictures in a grown man’s wallet. This would be another Alumni Ball moment for me, my final bow. My night redeemed.

 

CHAPTER FIVE: After-Dinner Drinks
.

 

“Your attention!” I shouted to the room, and there seemed to be a great deal of wobbling in the fraternity house by now. Mothers holding glasses of wine, hands on their husbands’ shoulders. Fathers leaning against walls, bellies swollen from an ill-advised second or third trip to the buffet, a quarter-pound of extra brisket and four ribs too many, and still finishing another bottle of Heineken. Everyone engaged in sedated post-dinner conversations throughout the house, swirling as they talked, spilling beer and white wine.

“Your attention, please!” I said again, and now Jenn was standing
five feet in front of me. Seeing her was a reminder: I was speaking to the room, but really I was speaking to Jenn. Or I would be
soon
, at least.

But
the room continued to buzz in a hundred different conversations. I waved my arms for attention, a small table topped with a half-dozen engraved academic plaques waiting to be presented and distributed, and it was Jenn who smiled up at me and then placed her drink on the table to unleash a vigorous earthquake-clap that didn’t seem possible from such tiny hands.

The room stopped, cups frozen at lips, mouths paused in mid-word, as if stuck in a
Saved By the Bell
time-out.

And it was Jenn who kissed me on the cheek, who projected her voice to reach the entire fraternity house, inside and out, upstairs and down, 150 people in all, Jenn who introduced me—“
My boyfriend, the president of the fraternity, an amazing guy who planned this entire night, and he’s just got a few words to say”—and it was Jenn who gripped my hand, the sort of soft squeeze that you can’t misinterpret and you can’t fake.

The room broke into
polite applause, not nearly as loud as a single clap from Jenn.

“I want to thank you all for making the trip to attend our Senior Send-Off,” I told the assembled crowd.
I tried to keep my eye on my girlfriend. To let her slip away, back into the crowd, would be to dash my plans: she needed to be close so that I could bend casually to my knee and present her the charm. “This event took a lot of planning,” I said, “and we wanted to make sure that we used this opportunity to spotlight some of the great aspects of our fraternity.”

But as I spoke, the faces and bodies were already un-freezing, hands stuffing into pockets and backs slumping against walls in anticipation of some long and exhausting speech
.
Please, do we have to listen to this
? “Diversity in our membership,” I was saying, “a commitment to service, a National Headquarters that strongly believes” —mothers taking sips of wine, glassy eyes glossing further— “depiction of fraternities in the media and in Hollywood is
100 percent wrong
, and we wanted to show you that” —fathers whispering into the ears of their sons, my fraternity brothers patting their dads on the back and then slinking away to the bar to mix a couple more drinks. Cell phones out. Text messages.

But I continued speaking, said something about the mission and about the socially responsible citizens we were creating, and how proud I’d been to represent them all as their president, and my father stood in the back of the room, water in hand, never failing to make eye contact as I recited my prepared speech about the importance of scholarship to the fraternity mission; he sipped the water just the same as he sipped his morning coffee, stared
directly into my eyes, perhaps already thinking of how he would call bullshit on my convictions.

“Enough from me,” I said, and I dabbed my sweaty forehead with a napkin. “It’s time to hand out the awards and the annual Nu Kappa Epsilon scholarships.”

And then the room erupted into real applause, this time much heartier than the last, this time genuine. And before I could say another word, Todd Hampton—the newly elected president of our chapter, the man who would move into my presidential suite once I drove away to Indianapolis in two weeks—was beside me, arm around me, and he was saying “I’ll take over from here, Charles. Why don’t you step down?”

“Um,” I said, but he nudged me
back into the crowd. And from down here, surrounded by fraternity brothers and swaying mothers and 50-year-old men still chewing ribs, I could no longer see Jenn. She’d fallen to the thick of the crowd somehow, maybe all the way to the back of the room. And Todd passed out plaque after plaque, “Best G.P.A.” and “Most Improved G.P.A.” and “The Damon Jarred Memorial Scholarship,” and it was supposed to be me up there, soaking in the applause and offering my commentary on the brothers who meant so much to me, the family, the power of fraternity, but it was Todd. “Thank you all so much for coming,” Todd said. “We worked so hard on this night, and it means everything to have our families celebrate with us. And now, I’ll—”

“Time to cut the cake!” I shouted over him. And I was motioning for everyone to follow me, and the room was a flood of parents and teenagers and twenty-somethings rushing to the next room, where—wobbling—
I was soon cutting the giant cake with a tiny plastic knife, fingers slopping into the frosting, mothers taking slices of cake while trying (but not very hard, after all the wine they’d finished) to hide their grimaces when they noticed thumb prints in the icing, Jenn taking pictures,
Jenn taking pictures
! And I tried to elbow my way away from the table and toward her, but the mothers were too intent on their cake, and it was all arms and torsos and I was pushed back to the table and someone said, “Not so fast, buddy! Keep cutting that cake!” and Jenn was gone.

Minutes later, I escaped to the courtyard
, but there was no sign of her. Not inside, not outside.

“Looking for Jenn?” Edwin asked. He was out here with a girl who looked like Lindsay Lohan, his hand on her ass while his parents were inside finishing another round of martinis.

“You seen her?” I asked.

“She went home,” the Lindsay Lohan girl said and pouted her lips. “Back to the KD house.”

“She went home? Without saying goodbye?” I asked. “She can’t…”

“Christina was waaaa-sted,” the girl
said. “She, like, had to get her out of there.”

“Christina?”

“His formal date,” Lindsay said and slapped Edwin’s chest. She said
formal
as if it had twelve syllables, the “foooorrrrrrr” lasting so long that Edwin was able to move his beer bottle to his lips, take a long gulp, then bring it down and toss the empty bottle into a trash can.

“What?” Edwin
said nonchalantly. “I’m with
you
tonight.”

“She’s not coming back?”

The girl held up her palms, and the action was enough to make her stumble and almost fall into the fountain. Edwin caught her. “Take it easy, Charles,” he said, “we don’t want her thinking too hard tonight, buddy.” And she laughed and fell into him and he caught her by the boobs and balanced her and grabbed her ass while doing so. “God, I love this house,” he said.

*

“So proud of you,” my mother said. “So proud, Charlie.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“Whoops.” Splash of drink on the wall, on the floor.

“You all right?”

“Charlie Charlie,” my mother said. “I was always hard on you, wasn’t I?” And she had her hand on my shoulder, was leaning close as if this was a conversation we’d been putting off for far too long. “All the clubs, all the sports.”

“No, Mom. You were fine.”

“But it paid off, didn’t it? Look at you now, Charlie!”

Splash of drink on my pants.

“Yes, Mom.”

“Let me tell you something about your father,” she said.

“Um. Please don’t.”

“He won’t even let himself have a good time,” she said. “It’s so
…it’s
pathetic
.”

“He’s trying to be…I don’t know…responsible,
” I said.

“We did all right as a family, didn’t we, Charlie?”

“What are you talking about, Mom?”

“I’d like to think we did something right. You’re going to do so well. Maybe you’ll do better than we have.”

“Do better? You did fine. What are you talking about?”

“Whoops,” she said again.

*

I still remember
the first time I ever saw my parents drunk. When I was fifteen or so. They came home from a party, a housewarming party, my mother crashing through the front door, laughing and stumbling through the dim hallway to cook leftovers in the kitchen, my father trying to keep her quiet while I pretended to be asleep. She made ridiculous comments about doing yardwork at midnight, or about dusting fan blades, howled, but the next day appeared normal again, like a werewolf the morning after a full moon. My father, in the morning, was back to wearing pleated khaki shorts and a polo, sipping coffee on the front porch. Thinking about it now, I’m not sure if he’d even had a sip of alcohol the night before, but he
knew
, at least. Knew I’d heard. My mother, too. And I think they realized my mental picture was altered that night, irrevocably, and it wasn’t a bad thing to them, just gave them license to resume “Saturday Nights on the Town,” something they’d abandoned the moment I’d been born, gave my mother license to start a wine collection, a new red every few nights. As an only child, she was the one who’d kept me involved all throughout middle school and high school, in soccer and Key Club and Cypress Falls Service, always telling me about my potential and about how I could be
anything
but I needed to be
driven
, and so—starting, perhaps, that night when I was fifteen—she could see the credits rolling on her parental responsibilities. Perhaps she imagined a rewind to her youth. I would be off to college in two years, gone, a financial burden but no longer a physical one.

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