It wasn’t something he’d ever admit out loud, but Stefan was afraid. The time he had been depending on, that he had convinced himself he had plenty of, was quickly running out. It was his senior year in high school and as soon as he got his diploma his father expected him to go out and get a job. It wasn’t an unusual expectation, of course; many of the kids Stefan knew were already working while in school or had left school altogether to pursue work full time. The problem was that when Stefan tried to work, it never went well. The weeks he spent at his grandfather’s farm over summer were devoted more to finding the most comfortable haystacks to sleep in than to helping with the animals, and the weekends his father roped him into pulling weeds and raking leaves usually ended in complaints of make-believe muscle strain and imaginary blisters, and calling it a day early. In short, he was hopelessly lazy.
It wasn’t his fault, at least not at first. What child given the choice between a soft bed and a hard day of chores would subject himself to the dirt and sweat of helping his father with yard work? Or would rather wrestle a pig than disappear into a pile of straw? But as he grew older he became more and more aware that it was wrong to take advantage of his mother’s endless need to coddle her only living child. Wrong to let her make excuses for him and talk his father into cutting him slack that he neither needed nor deserved. Of course, knowing it was wrong wasn’t enough to make him stop. Leisure was a drug for him, and like any drug it would take a strong will to give it up and a strong push to even try. Graduation was slated to be that push, but part of him hoped it would come sooner, to give him a head start.
Wednesdays were when Stefan’s laziness peaked. As much as he hated physical labor, mental effort was even worse. Hard labor at least brought an increased heart rate to keep you alert and able for the duration of the task. Mental effort brought boredom, drowsiness, and an overall lack of will to continue. And since he could not escape school the way he could escape work, the middle of the week always found him ready to crawl into his room and forget the world existed. He was doing just that, lying on his bed with his arm slung over his face, when his father opened the door and turned on the light.
“Stefan,” his father barked. “It’s not even dark out. The hell’re you doing in bed?”
“I finished my homework,” Stefan said, not even uncovering his eyes. “You can check it if you want.” At this his father crossed his arms and pulled his mouth into a tight line; Carl Bekowsky had been forced to halt his own education early on.
“I don’t need to,” he said finally. “It’s going to come back all A’s, right?” Stefan sighed, moving his arm and looking at his father.
“Come on, Dad. I couldn’t get straight A’s if I tried.”
,” Carl said. “And why don’t we just test that for once?” Stefan looked away again.
“I did my best, Dad.”
“Someday,” Carl said, turning to leave the room, “I’d like to hear you say that and mean it.” He closed the door and Stefan looked after him a moment before sighing heavily and closing his eyes again, not bothering with the light his father had left on.
A few minutes later, his father returned, and instead of words, Stefan was greeted with the weight of something blocky and heavy dropping onto his chest and stomach. He let out a grunt, his eyes shooting open to see that his father was presenting him the family Bible.
“If you’re not gonna do anything for your mind,” he said, “at least do something for your soul.” He turned to head out of the room.
“You know, God rested on the seventh day,” Stefan called after him.
“Yeah, but he worked the other six first.” Carl slammed the door behind him. Stefan sat up a bit, looking at the book before flipping though it aimlessly.
“Adam, Abraham, Noah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, David, Jesus, and the end of the world. Done.” He slammed the book shut again and laid back, the book resting on his chest. For a moment he contemplated this God his parents believed in so fervently. The one he was sure existed, but whom he wasn’t sure he could trust. The God who had taken his sister, but who had allowed his father to keep his job and his family to keep their home when so many had lost theirs to the Depression. The God who had taken his Uncle Iwan’s wife, but not before giving him a little girl who was at once a burden to him and a reason to go on. The God who had given Stefan his inclination toward idleness, the ideal circumstance to give into it, and the conscience to feel guilty, but not the drive to do anything about it. A push. He needed a push. Was it possible he could find it here?
Stefan sat up all the way this time, opening the book on his crossed legs. He flipped to a random page and read a verse before deciding it wasn’t what he was looking for, and then he tried again. He wasn’t sure how long he had been at it, or how many verses had flashed before his eyes without settling into his brain, but finally there it was, clear as day.
Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right. Honour thy father and mother; (which is the first commandment with promise;) That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth.
Stefan sighed heavily.
“Well, can’t argue with that.”
Stefan leaned against the lab counter watching as his science partner set up the experiment and listening to him rattle off the list of colleges he had applied to and what he thought his odds were at each one. They were good. Dean had a future lined up. Dean had planned ahead. As for Stefan, he had only done well enough in school to convince his mother he was trying, though he’d never fooled his father. His GPA was good enough that he could get into some college somewhere, but not enough that any college anywhere would pay his way. Besides, even if he could survive a higher education he was sure he wouldn’t last a lifetime doing something scholarly. Who would hire a professor who slept through his own classes?
When there was a break in Dean’s speech, Stefan cut in.
“What about me?”
Dean glanced at him.
“Hm? What do you mean?”
“I mean… what do you think I could do? After high school.”
Dean was silent for a moment, thinking.
“Well, your father’s a mechanic, right? I’m sure he could teach you. And if you got in before the kids looking for summer jobs I’m sure you could get a job at a store somewhere.” Stefan nodded; that was what he had come up with himself. “Or, you know,” Dean went on. “There’s always the army.”
The army. The training alone was probably a lot more than Stefan could handle. Someone kicking his ass all the time, not giving him a chance to revert to being lazy. But maybe he needed that. Maybe he wasn’t going to be able to fix it on his own, and he needed someone on the outside to force him, to stamp it out of him. He’d be miserable the entire time, of course, but he’d emerge as a very much improved version of himself. Not to mention what it must feel like to do something so important. To protect the freedom of his country, of the people he loved. He couldn’t think of a better way to make up for all the time he’d spent being useless.
There was of course the issue of his mother. She’d never let him. And if he went anyway, the worry would probably kill her. This would require a lot more thought than he could give it during a science lab.
“Those are good ideas,” Stefan said. “Thanks, Dean.”
He’d sleep on it in French class.
Stefan quickly decided that being a mechanic like his father would be a last resort. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the job, but he was trying to show initiative for once, and relying on his father to get him started didn’t seem like the best way to do that. He began visiting stores after school to see if they were hiring. He wasn’t having much luck, but he was only checking two or three a day. He knew he should put more time into it, but he reasoned with himself that if he came home too late, his mother would ask him where he had been, and Stefan didn’t want to tell his parents anything until there was actually something to tell. Was the fact that he was quick to lose interest in his job hunt a factor? Maybe, but only a secondary one.
A few weeks into the search, Stefan decided he should pick up the pace. He checked four stores that day, and then decided he ought to rest for a while before heading back home. As he sat on a bench watching people and cars go by, he contemplated whether or not it would be a good idea to take a nap there. Of course he’d get some strange looks, but he wasn’t worried about that so much as he was about being robbed or murdered. However, the police station was just down the street, and if he moved to a bench closer to that, it would probably be the safest place to nap in the whole town.
It hit him then. A police officer. Of course. That would definitely impress his dad. And while it was still dangerous enough to worry his mother, unlike with the army, at least she could see him at dinner every night if she wanted to and know he was all right. And he didn’t know much about wages, but a cop had to make more than a shoe store clerk. That was it, then. Stefan would walk right into the police station and find out how to go about becoming an officer. As soon as he got out of school tomorrow.
It was chilly out, but Stefan didn’t feel like going back inside to get a sweater, especially since it meant climbing back down from the roof. Besides, the cold air helped him think; if he were too warm he might just fall asleep. Three months at the police academy and he could be a cop. Nothing more needed, not even a high school diploma. If he caught the next session he’d be done by May, all his laziness trained right out of him. He just needed to talk to his parents about it. As for when he was going to do that, the answer presented itself when a ladder came to rest on the edge of the roof. A moment later his father appeared.
“Stefan?” The man’s face said that he had a lot of questions, but the first one that left his mouth was; “How’d you get up here without a ladder?” Stefan shrugged.
“I have my ways.”
His father seemed to accept this and climbed the rest of the way up, settling beside him, leaning back on his hands.
“This a spot of yours?” he asked, looking at his son. “If you’d been lying down I wouldn’t have seen you from the driveway.” Stefan pulled his knees up and shook his head, staring off.
“Takes a little bit too much to get up here.”
“Well, you’re up here now. How come?”
“You were right, Dad,” he said, still not looking at Carl. “I mean, you knew that already, but I know it, too now.
“Yeah?” his father prodded, not unkindly. “And just what was I right about?”
“I’m gonna have to do something. And I should have been doing something all along so that when the time came, I’d know how.”
“It’s not too late,” his father reminded.
“No,” Stefan agreed. “And I’m gonna fix it. I’m gonna do something about it.”
Stefan looked at his father for a moment and started to speak. He found he couldn’t and looked away before trying again.
“Well, the first thing I’m gonna do is drop out of school.”
His father sat up so fast, Stefan was afraid he’d fall off the roof.
“Now hold on a minute—”
“Dad, it’s okay,” Stefan said, facing his father again and holding a hand up in a calming gesture. “I know what I’m doing. I’m dropping out of school and I’m gonna attend the police academy.”
“You don’t have to drop out of school to—”
“I don’t have to finish, either.”
“Goddamnit, boy, you let me finish speaking.”
Stefan went silent and looked down at the roof shingles.
“Now listen, you want to be a cop that’s fine. But you finish school first.”
“I can’t, Dad,” he said. “I really can’t. If I don’t do this now, I’m afraid I’ll change my mind.” He shook his head. “No, forget that. I know
“Wouldn’t it be worse to change your mind once you’ve already started?”
Stefan looked at his father again.
“But I won’t. I mean, I think I won’t. Getting started is the hard part, right? Once you’re working at something, really working at it, it… feels good, doesn’t it? I mean, I don’t know, I’ve never done it, but that’s what you’ve always told me, right? Hard work is rewarding? So once I start, I’ll have something to keep me from stopping. But if I don’t start now, then maybe I won’t do it at all.”
Carl was silent for a moment, taking his turn to stare off.
“Your mother won’t like it,” he said finally.
“Trust me, I know,” Stefan said. “But I thought it over, and I think I have a plan. I have a pretty good idea how to work her.”
“Oh trust me, I know.” He moved toward the ladder. “Well, if you’re sure that’s what you want to do, I suppose you’re old enough now that I shouldn’t try to stop you. But you’re not so old that I won’t whoop you if you’re late for dinner, so don’t stay up here too long.” His father disappeared and a moment later, so did the ladder.
“Hey!” Stefan called over the edge of the roof. “How—”
“You have your ways,” his father called back.
About a week later, Stefan burst into the house right before dinner and firmly declared that he was joining the army, and nothing anyone said could stop him. Of course, this didn’t stop his Kamila Bekowsky from adamantly trying. After several minutes of her desperately bargaining and begging her son to change his mind, he stormed out of the house, seemingly in a rage. Once out of sight, he’d leaned against a fence and sunk into a sitting position. If pretending to be that angry was this exhausting, what must really feeling that way be like?
As he’d never put the effort into throwing a tantrum before, he wasn’t sure how long it should last. He decided to just let his stomach decide, heading back when his hunger got the better of him. He found his parents in the living room, his father seated beside his mother with a hand on her back, speaking to her softy. Stefan didn’t have to fake the contrition on his face and in his voice as he stood in front of them.
“Mom? Dad?” he said quietly. “How about… the police, then?”
Stefan was silent as he stood in the yard, spraying the hedges with the garden hose. His father stood beside him, equally silent, smoking a cigarette.
“So,” Carl said finally. “When do you start?”
“Two weeks,” Stefan said. His father nodded.
“Well all right then.” He took another drag on his cigarette, then he hit Stefan on the back of his head so hard that the boy had to take a step not to fall over. “Don’t you ever do that to your mother again.”
“Yes, sir,” Stefan said, rubbing his head as his father returned inside. For a moment he considered turning off the hose and retreating into the tree, but then he figured he should finish what he had started.