Authors: Gary Paulsen
The car had barely stopped before they tumbled out and threw their arms around me and Grandma, hugging and kissing and telling us how long the five days away from us had seemed.
It felt like I’d lived several centuries since they’d left.
Zed had arrived and departed.
My staff had expanded.
Lawyers had filed papers.
Tax problems had erupted.
My staff had become a bunch of organized troublemakers to scare off some bad guys.
Grandma had thrown a kidney punch.
My parents looked calm and happy.
The exact opposite of how I felt.
“We have so much to tell you, it’s been so thrilling—life-changing, really,” my mother said.
That was how I’d describe my last week too.
“We found a little cottage on the north shore of a lake,” Dad explained. “You can see the sunrise over the east shore and the sunset along the western horizon.”
Grandma said, “It’s no use boiling your cabbage twice.”
After we shot each other a confused look, Mom picked up the story.
“It’s got a screened-in porch where we can eat breakfast and watch the lake,” she said. “And a stone fireplace and three little bedrooms with built-in
bookcases. The nights are so quiet and dark that you can hear the leaves rustle on the trees and there are more stars in the sky than you ever imagined.”
“And you can spend a lot of time in the fresh air.” They both said this at the same time. My parents are big on me spending time in the fresh air.
“But that’s not the life-changing part—” Dad started before I cut him off.
“Listen, Mom, Dad, I waited too long earlier this summer to tell you what was going on with my business. So I need to interrupt and bring you up to date on Zed and the lawsuits.”
“Who’s Zed?” Dad asked.
“Lawsuits?” Mom looked worried.
“And the staff and the tax audit and the media attention and the people who wanted Joey to throw the fight, too.”
Dad put his hand on my shoulder. “Let’s go inside, sit down and talk.”
They sat quietly and listened. As for me, hearing myself say it all out loud, one horrible fact after another, was almost too much. Even having resolved the Zed thing, and working as I was to fix the Bruiser situation, I felt like there were just too many problems. It would take a million years to make
everything quiet and smooth like before. And I was never going to get to ride my bike again, no matter how many new inner tubes I could afford.
Dad said, “We’ll just have to take it one day at a time.”
Mom took my hand and patted it. “Nothing is ever as bad as it seems, dear.”
“We’ll talk to Arnold and the tax people and the lawyers and figure this out.” Dad looked confident.
“I’m sure it’s just a matter of explaining to the right people,” Mom said.
How could they be so serene and matter-of-fact about these disasters? Had I told the story right? My parents should have freaked out. That was what I was doing.
I wanted to run away.
It was time to do some thinking.
So I went to the garage to sit on my lawn mower.
Only I was too riled up to sit. I kicked the tires and I pounded the seat. In fact, I hit the seat so hard that I loosened something, which fluttered to the ground.
A small plastic bag had been duct-taped to the underside of the seat. I stared at it for a few seconds before ripping open the plastic. A folded paper fell out.
A ship is safe in the harbor, but that’s not why ships are built
This was written in clean block letters, perfectly
formed, the way a kindergarten teacher would print. Or the way a man who always took good care of his tools would print. Clear and sharp.
What did ships have to do with lawn mowers, and why would he go to the trouble to write this sentence down and then carefully hide it underneath the seat? I had suddenly found a clue to a scavenger hunt I didn’t know I had joined.
I climbed back on the lawn mower to study the … proverb, I guess you’d call it. It sounded familiar.
It sounded like Grandma.
I did what I do when she says stuff I don’t understand—I sat back and waited for the meaning to become clear.
And I waited some more.
I waited just a tad longer.
Finally, I realized that my heart wasn’t pounding and my breathing had slowed down. I didn’t feel like yelling or kicking or pounding anymore.
I still felt like running away, though.
Had Grandpa been trying to tell me to run away to sea? I hoped not, because I get seasick really
easily and, from what I hear, boats seem to require endless repairs and maintenance, and I was already at the edge of my performance envelope making sure the lawn mower had enough gas and oil. I’m just not machine oriented.
Sailing didn’t sound particularly calming and soothing to me, at least not now. Maybe when I was older.
There must be another purpose to this note from Grandpa.
The words sounded simple and wise and wonderful. And I was all for those qualities coming to stay with me for a while.
I never really knew my grandfather, but the lawn mower had come from him. He’d gotten me into this situation, and I hoped this was his way of getting me out.
Maybe the meaning of the message wasn’t in what he said, but in how he said it, and he was telling me to keep things simple.
If I was being honest, I’d have to admit he hadn’t gotten me into this situation—I’d gotten myself into it. And I needed to get myself out. And do what I felt was right for me and my family.
I took a deep breath and got off my lawn mower.
I wiped it down, making sure to remove clods of dried mud and clumps of grass from the undercarriage and chipping the dried dirt off the pictures of the rabbit and the turtle. The lawn mower had seen better days, but in the dim light of the overhead bulb in the garage, it seemed to glow.
Then I went back into the house to speak to Mom and Dad and Grandma about what we needed to do to shift our lives back to turtle mode.
I called a staff meeting for first thing the next morning. Arnold, Pasqual, Louis, Benny, Joey, Gib, Savannah, Frank, Lindy, Kathy, Kenny, Allen, Rock, Mom, Dad and Grandma crammed into Arnold’s screened-in porch.
I stood up at the table and cleared my throat.
“I’m just a simple working man. I’m not even a man. I’m just a kid who wanted to make enough money this summer to buy a new inner tube for his bike.”
They all stared up at me. Gib was taking notes for report he’d later write and share with the team.
I hoped he didn’t miss a word.
“I can’t do this anymore—too many employees, tax problems, lawsuits, greedy fake relatives, interviews and autograph seekers. I’m sick of it.”
I took a deep breath and faced Arnold. “I’m out.”
I heard a gasp from Kathy. And then she started thumb-typing on her BlackBerry, no doubt canceling the appearances she’d set up. Everyone else was silent.
“Give Pasqual and Louis and Benny the lawn service. Do what you need to do so that Joey finds another sponsor or make sure he has enough money so he doesn’t need a new one. I don’t want franchises and endorsements and publicity anymore, so we need to find Kathy and Gib and Frank other jobs. Let Savannah and Lindy and Arnold focus on their other clients. Shut down the whole thing. Cash out and put the money in some fund that I can’t touch until college.
“I’m done. I quit.”
No one said anything. No one blinked. Even Kathy had stopped texting.
“My mom and dad and I talked last night. We’re going up north to a little place they found on the lake until school starts in a couple of weeks. I’m going to
ride my bike, have some kind of summer vacation that’s not about work and money and craziness.”
My parents and Grandma were the only ones smiling at me.
“I can’t thank you all enough for all the good work you’ve done, especially you, Arnold. This whole thing was because of you—not the bad parts, of course, but all the money and the expansion and the staff. You did an amazing job. All of you did. But I’m twelve years old and I just want to have a summer vacation.”
Grandma said, “It’s no use carrying an umbrella if your shoes are leaking. And, hon”—she winked—“no one can ever blame a man for following his own heart and making the decision he knows is right. A ship is safe in the harbor …”
We were packed and out of the house later that morning. We discovered that Zed had come back while we were out and taken the china he’d used for his party and most of Mom’s good towels, which he’d used after his showers (we honestly didn’t want those back). He’d also taken the easy chair, the big television from the den and every single battery, flashlight and lightbulb in the house, as well as the contents of the deep freeze in the garage.
The only hassle was getting my lawn mower hitched to the back of our car. I couldn’t see leaving it behind.
We settled into the cabin in no time flat. Mom spent a lot of time reading, and Dad got the shed set up so he could work on inventions, and I made a couple of new friends. We hung out at the frozen custard stand and they came over to fish with me.
The cabin came with a small sailboat tied to the end of the dock, so I was teaching myself to sail. After about the twelfth time I tipped over or got stuck in the middle of the lake waiting for the wind to come up and blow me back to shore, I wondered: Would I have attempted to learn about the sailboat if I hadn’t found the note from Grandpa?
I didn’t hear from anyone who’d been at that last staff meeting except Grandma. How come? Were they all so busy dismantling operations that they didn’t have time to get in touch, or were they all mad at me and did they never want to talk to me again?
Life had become quiet and peaceful, and I felt like hundreds of pounds of pressure had been lifted from my shoulders. I told myself I wasn’t the kind of guy who was meant to be rich. That I didn’t need the money and I could live without it just fine.
I missed the work, though. I felt weird, kind of
guilty, sleeping in every morning, and all day long I kept checking my watch, as if I had a yard to get to. And I wondered what everyone was doing. I had a tough time falling asleep every night too. Now that I wasn’t exhausted all the time, sleep didn’t come as easy and deep as it had.
I started to count the days until we could get back home and I could start school. I didn’t even mind the prospect of facing trig.
Grandma showed up for dinner the second week. She brought me an old-fashioned hand-cranked ice cream machine and said, “There’s no need to fear the wind if your haystacks are tied down.”
I was getting better at translating Grandma-speak and asked, “Was this Grandpa’s too?”
“Yes. Your grandpa loved ice cream. He always said no one ever matched his vanilla kumquat recipe, which just goes to show that wooden shoe trees don’t help a bit when it’s time to vote.”