A specter appeared at the end of the driveway, shimmering in the heat. From his post outside the pigeon coop, Vincent saw it was a man, a white man, in a pink shirt, khakis, boots, a white hard hat. He surveyed the dying rows of the nursery to either side of him as he approached, head swinging left and right, pausing every now and again to dig the toe of his boot into a furrow, testing the strength of the dirt.
Vincent had sweat through his white t-shirt, front and back, and as the man approached in his hard hat and pink button-up—Vincent could now make out neat, pressed creases on the outside of the arms and running down the front where the pockets would be, were there two breast pockets, but there was only one, and it had a dark blue whale insignia—he was now suddenly fully aware of his sweaty t-shirt, and seemingly only aware of the sweaty t-shirt. There was nothing else in the world but this man approaching him and this wet, funky t-shirt, Vincent’s skin showing through, chest and back and shoulders, the clammy cotton clinging to him there like a marsupial would, or a frightened child.
“Hello!” the man called, still walking forward, hand held up in greeting. He had eyeglasses, too, under the hard hat.
“Hey,” Vincent responded, tugging on his shirt so it wouldn’t cling. This guy was a hand-shaker, no doubt about that. Vincent sniffed his fingertips: birds, man. Shit.
The white man had lowered his hand, and when he got to Vincent he swung it back up to shake. Vincent took it.
“Gene Canton,” the man said. “Canton Construction.”
“Guessing you’re related to Gary?” Gene Canton let go of Vincent’s hand, pushed his glasses back up onto his nose. He had a pink face. The shirt brought it out. There was some sweat on the end of his nose. On the sides of his face, too, running down from under the hard hat. Vincent wondered why he was still wearing it.
“I’m his son,” Vincent said.
“We’ve been trying to get in touch with Gary,” Gene said. He spoke clearly, didn’t have an accent. He reached behind him, pulled an envelope out of his pocket, or maybe it had been tucked into his waistband. He held it out. “Can you get this to him?”
Vincent took the envelope. His father’s name was printed in the center. The blue, looping Kroger logo was where the return address would be. He handed it back. “I’m sorry. He’s dead.”
Gene Canton stared at him a moment, then he looked down at his toes, ground the dirt a little bit, looked back up. “Sorry to hear that, son.” He looked off to the side, squinted, said, “Goddamn,” looked at Vincent again. “How long ago did he pass?”
“Few days,” Vincent said, shrugged. “Week. He’d been sick a while.”
Gene considered this, then held the envelope out again. “This is for you, then.”
“Not interested,” Vincent said.
“Son,” Gene said, tapping the envelope, “there’s a check in there for half a million dollars.”
Vincent took the envelope, again read his father’s name in print.
“They want the land,” Gene was saying. “Retail. Banking. All that. The New Kroger—that’s just the beginning. And you get to cash in, son.”
“I can’t take this,” Vincent said, pushing the envelope back. “I just got here. I mean, I just fed his pigeons.”
Gene’s hands went up. “Don’t have to choose now,” he said. “Son: you just lost your dad. Sit on it a while.”
Vincent tried once again to push the envelope back, but Gene stepped backwards, smiled. “Hold onto it. See how it feels.” He touched the brim of his white hard hat, a gesture that offended Vincent, angered him, made him sick, though he couldn’t say just why, and then Gene Canton turned and headed back down the driveway, pink shirt immaculate, a sweatless wonder, immune to the sweat Vincent had seen with his own eyes on Gene’s face, and Vincent watched him until he was just a shimmer again, and then he turned, and was gone.
Vincent decided to stay in Milledgeville. It was actually an easy decision. Back in Tampa, he’d been bored and unhappy. He worked nights at a Taco Bell, woke up in the afternoons, lifted weights, smoked dope, hit the beach, watched DVDs with his roommate, but had nothing else to respond to, nothing to rise to. And though Vincent had no problem with this lifestyle while he was living it, his short time in Milledgeville had changed him. For one, Vincent had always thought he enjoyed his job at the Taco Bell—the camaraderie, the CinnaStix, pounding free Mountain Dew until delirious and singing through his headset for late-night drive-thru customers—but now, from here, from outside, he saw his job in a new light, saw it for the first time, maybe, for what it really was, as the only regular event in an otherwise featureless lifescape, something that stuck out to him simply by virtue of its being there and being constant, like that smokestack rising like a middle finger from the pine forests of Milledgeville, notable not because it was anything particularly remarkable or beautiful or complex, but because for miles and miles around, it was the only thing above the trees.
But more importantly, and more obviously, Vincent’s father was dead. And for Vincent, what was most important of all was that his father had died without waking up, without ever seeing that Vincent, his son, had grown into a man. At first Vincent found this depressing, maddening, because he realized he’d never get the chance to show his dad the hair now grown thick on his chin, or the full white of his smile, or his premature horseshoe-patterned balding (which Vincent believed was actually a sign of maturity), or the breadth of his shoulders, his barreled and booming chest, his bench press, his vertical leap, his wicked crossover or his fifty-yard spiral or his friends or his girlfriends or even a fucking three-hundred-dollar paycheck from fucking Taco Fucking Bell. But now, standing in his father’s dusty and quickly wilding fields on the outskirts of Milledgeville, the unopened envelope in his hand and the kudzu already encroaching, the earthmovers and cranes sculpting The New Kroger beeping and cranking away next door, sweating still through his white t-shirt, his fingertips fouled with the smell of the pigeons, of birdseed and dirt, Vincent looked again at his father’s name, in clean, black print, and thought it was actually a blessing that his father didn’t see him before he died. Because if he had, that would have been it: Vincent certified, confirmed adult. Had his father seen him, Vincent thought, he probably would have let the pigeons out just now instead of feeding them, would have cashed this check and bought a car and gone back home, back to Florida, back to Taco Bell, even, to his marijuana and kung fu movies, to sleeping late, to sugary soda and weekends clowning on the boardwalk, to a rich and lazy life, ennui deluxe, Chinese take-out cartons and fat blunts, an oversized striped beach towel spread on Tampa’s dirty shore. And one look from his father would have confirmed it, sealed it, one look would have finished him. But Vincent saw now that it didn’t have to be like that. That he had inherited something, that he wasn’t done. That Milledgeville was a second chance.
In six months, the greenhouse was full of marijuana plants.
Vincent’s story will continue in the next installment of The New Kroger.
Roger is a composition teacher at Georgia College in Milledgeville, Georgia. He's working on his first novel, and would like to tell you all about it.