This is chapter eight of a story entitled The Other One. To start at the beginning, click here.
“Well if Christmas Eve gets boring, let me know! I’m sure I can help ”
I never got around to responding to that message. I mean, even a “Sure will!” would have been a enough of a response, but for whatever reason, I stayed silent. Oh well, I’m sure at some point, I would think of a way to move past the stalemate I got myself into.
Truth be told, Christmas Eve was boring. It was one of those days where the thrill of seeing everyone again had almost worn off, but the excitement of Christmas wasn’t quite here yet.
So I found myself on the couch, watching whatever animated special had come on at whatever random time of the day, all the while staring at that one text message. I guess I hoped at some point I would just have no other choice but to respond and see what happens, but until then, it looked like another airing of A Christmas Story lied ahead for me.
My phone buzzed. Strange, considering the rest of the family was here at the house and Alex wasn’t supposed to stop by until dinner. Maybe it was somebody back in New York? I hadn’t actually spoken to anyone up there in a few days. Either way, I was confused to say the least.
“Great! Why don’t you meet me downtown for coffee? :)”
Oh no. My fingers had betrayed me. I had already replied and didn’t even realize it. And I guess I’m going downtown now.
And why does she insist on including smiley faces?
The Manchester downtown area wasn’t exactly a traditional downtown area. The city wasn’t large enough for that. Well, maybe just not urban enough. Really, what was considered “downtown” was nothing more than a block or two of old buildings near the Greymont campus.
Manchester was an older city, but one that changed greatly with time. Besides the university, the face of the city was drastically different than it was when it was founded. The city had expanded to a certain point and then stopped, so any further growth was translated into inward change. However, one particular area had survived, at least for the most part, and it made up what the residents called “downtown.”
I couldn’t figure out exactly what kept downtown alive. It always seemed like the businesses that were located there were in a constant rotation. There wasn’t nearly enough traffic there to keep things alive, and every local art gallery or specialty shop that moved in eventually moved out. Not all of the businesses died, but none really stayed.
It seemed to me that the routine hadn’t changed in the past seven years, as sure enough none of the places sounded familiar to me. It was really odd, though, considering it was all the old buildings where I first discovered coffee or local music. Some of my favorite Manchester memories were from this area, where Ethan and I would cut loose and just wander around. He liked the area because it was old and odd, and for whatever reason, we never got bored with those two blocks of buildings.
But things were totally different. Those old places, which once held great memories for me, had changed. They were gone.
Downtown meant nothing to me anymore.
Jenn was sitting on the porch of the coffee shop, engrossed in some book I’m sure I wasn’t actually interested in but would act that way if need be. Leave it to Mississippi to have weather in December that still lent itself to reading outside.
I think I took a deep breath in the car before I walked to the door. I don’t quite remember if did anything special in preparation, because I felt so incredibly unsure about what I was doing that I tried not to think at all. I figured at worst, I would spend a bit of time here with somebody, make some small talk, and it would deal with some of the boredom of the afternoon before we had a family dinner that night.
Wait, small talk? Never once in my life have I successfully engaged in small talk. Oh well, first time for everything, I guess.
Jenn marked her place before getting up and greeting me with a side hug. “Hey! How is your day going?”
I was beginning to think she could end all her sentences with a smilie. “Oh, it’s fine. You’re right, though. Got a little boring. It reached a point in which I was starting to think Charlie Brown would actually finally get to that football.”
“Wait, was there a football scene in A Charlie Brown Christmas? I thought it was snowing. Do people play football in the snow?”
“I don’t know. It was on TV, but that doesn’t mean I was watching it.”
Jenn chuckled at that, so I figured this was going well enough. If I asked a few general questions, then I could probably use up an hour or two and get home before messing something up.
“So tell me about this place.” I figured I’d start simple and impersonal. “I haven’t been home in years. When did this happen?”
“Let’s see….four years, I think? Maybe a little longer. I don’t think I had finished school yet, but it couldn’t have been that long ago.”
I was pretty impressed by this place’s longevity. “Wow, I’m pretty impressed with this place’s longevity. Usually seems like shops downtown last a year or two and then disappear.”
“Yeah, I noticed the same thing. Why do you think that is?”
“Aliens? I mean, with the rate they leave, abduction is the only explanation.”
Jenn laughed again. Victory, I guess.
“Well,” she continued with that look in her eye that she knew much, much more than me and was about to prove it without somehow sounding like a jerk. “I think this particular place served a greater need in Manchester than other places downtown.”
“Yeah, actually. I mean, we’re like two hundred yards from a college and there was nowhere to get coffee but gas stations and fast food places. Not to mention there was no good place to study. What other types of places were here before this place moved in?”
“I don’t know. Antiques or something, I’m sure.”
“Exactly! You see, Aaron, you don’t know what it was that was here first, because it wasn’t anything you were interested in. Our generation wasn’t looking for antiques when we were in college. We were looking in thrift stores. So a locally owned coffee shop right by the school? It was a perfect place at a time in which we needed it.”
She seemed to be dead on with this, but I was curious as to why she payed so much attention to these sort of things. “Why is that important, though? Why is it that this entire area of the city is constantly changing and we can’t seem to figure out what we need?”
“Well, two things: first off, look at the city. Look at the fact that it hasn’t grown since before we were born. People of the city aren’t looking to figure out what things they need and what they don’t need to make this place thrive. Not even downtown. They’re just looking to survive and keep things the same. It’s not just contentment here, it’s more like….complacency, I guess.”
“So do you hang out in Jackson to find people who care?”
“Yeah, to an extent. Cause there, things might suck some, but there are people who want to be around it. Some, at least. Most people in the area abandoned the place. Guess you got to give them credit, though. Either they love it or they hate it, but they’re not complacent.”
Jenn’s look at things was spot on, really. Manchester had moments during my life in which the city could have been more, but somehow worked always worked its way out. I hadn’t really thought before that it was because the people stopped caring about that.
“So do you care, Jenn?”
“About the city? About growth? Sure. Absolutely.” She approached even serious conversation with a surprisingly light tone, like it just wasn’t natural for her to be heavy, even when she was talking about heavy stuff. “I figure I’m here, I should be invested, right? I look at some of my friends who are active in their neighborhoods in Jackson and I wonder what it would look like if people in Manchester shook off the apathy a bit.”
“Good point. I hadn’t really thought of it before. Okay, I think you said you had two points. What was the second?”
“When you talked about Manchester, you used the term ‘we'”.
She had a smirk on her face, realizing she had caught me slip up and act like I was still a resident. I smirked a little myself, since I couldn’t understand it, much less explain it.
“Yeah….you know, I think I need to go grab some coffee now, Jenn.”
The afternoon flew by. We talked about downtown and Manchester more, I had a few stories from the past seven years to tell, and we even talked about high school some. It was funny to me, because I had completely forgotten some of the things that happened, and I especially forgot that she would remember some of the things as well.
Small talk never became an issue. I quickly discovered that Jenn was just easy to talk to. She laughed and smiled at even simple things and was extremely disarming. I didn’t feel like I had to put up any sort of witty or tough front. I didn’t have to impress her. I didn’t have to impress anyone. Certainly not myself.
There would be a time, I was sure, where I would look back on all of this and stress over what it all meant. I would worry about what she actually thought of me and whether the things she laughed at were actually funny or if she was being polite. At some point, I would think back on how much she loved stories, and I would continue to wonder if I was a story for her to enjoy or if there was more to her inviting me out to coffee.
But as for now, I would simply enjoy the distraction. At first, your mind doesn’t go towards all of the things you will worry about later. It first just drifts towards enjoying the situation, and if you do it right, you can actually just enjoy it for what it is and not worry about how you’ll feel later. Today, I needed to get out, and Jenn offered that. I was grateful.
I’m not sure how long it was that we sat outside talking, but it was enough for the sun to have moved. The store was about to get ready to close, and we would leave soon, but we weren’t rushing.
“Aaron, can I ask you something?”
This was always an interesting thing to be asked, because it was never clear what the following word would have been. Something awkward? Something serious? Something personal? It was always something scary, though, that’s for sure.
“Yeah, sure,” I answered, as confidently as possible.
“Why do you think your friend’s death hit you so hard? You know, so that you felt the need to leave?”
I stared at the table for a moment. It couldn’t have been longer than a moment, but it felt like a long time. I wasn’t upset or confused. I just couldn’t quite find the right words to start with.
I was interrupted. My phone, sitting out on the table, had started to buzz. I checked to see who was calling. It was my mom, which was strange because no matter how long we had been out, I knew I hadn’t missed dinner.
“Hold on, let me take this.”
I answered, but before I could even really get the word “hello” out, I could tell something was wrong.
“Aaron,” came my mom’s trembling voice, “we’re going over to the hospital. I need you to get over there please.”
My heart was pounding. “Are you okay? What is going on?”
“It’s Bryce.” Her voice had started to crack. “It’s your nephew. He’s stopped breathing. We don’t know what’s wrong.”