Jackson Reed sat on his front porch with a bottle of beer in one hand. The air was a little sticky but the weather was nice as the sun retreated behind the hills. The light was fading slowly. Slow enough that the eyes could adjust with it. Jackson had just completed his fourteen-hour shift. His jeans were caked with dirt, plaster, dust, and more dirt. He’d stripped off his shirt and let his sweat dry in the evening breeze.
Sixty-seven days. Jackson had finished sixty-seven, fourteen hour shifts in a row. Tomorrow would be number sixty-eight. He’d fallen into the routine of coming home, grabbing a beer, and sitting on the porch until the sunlight disappeared. Then he would crawl inside, rise off in the shower, and go to bed. His wife, Claire, had let him keep the habit because she knew he needed the time to unwind. He worked hard. He was a high school drop-out that worked various construction jobs throughout the city. He was grateful for what work he could get. He just hated that all his hard work could afford was a small, rundown, two-bedroom house barely big enough for his family. Claire stayed home because childcare cost more than what she would make at a full-time job. He started picking up secondary shifts to change things.
Claire would stay up with the kids until it was their time for bed, then she would tip-toe in and curl up beside him. She tried not to wake him, but he never slept deeply regardless of how exhausted he felt. Every night, after he let her settle into bed, he would turn over and wrap his arms around her. Then he would sleep the handful of hours he could before 4am came around and he would wake to the sound of his phone buzzing on the wooden dresser. He’d crawl out of bed and get ready for work. Before he left, he’d kiss Claire gently on the cheek, then sneak a glance at his kids. They would be sprawled across the two twin beds that nearly filled their room. He’d quietly shut their door and head out.
A year passed and his routine never budged except for two small changes. Claire began greeting him at the door with his two beers, and she would join him the twenty minutes it took her to drink her tea. At first they didn’t say much, but after a few weeks they began talking openly. Usually Claire would give Jackson updates about what was happening with the kids. Reminders about events coming up that she hoped he could attend. If he could get time away from work.
“Next week is Hayden’s birthday,” she said. She waited for his reply. He gave none. “It would be nice if you could stop by,” she continued.
“When is it?” he asked.
“I’ll try my best. We’re starting a new build tomorrow out past ninth street.”
“It’d mean a lot to him if you showed up when all of his friends are around.”
She went inside. Jackson finished his second beer and turned in. The next day he spent his half-hour lunch looking at a nearby sporting store where he picked out a used glove. He left work early at six forty-five, hit the tail-end of rush hour, and made it home at seven-thirty. His two beers were waiting for him on the porch.
A note on the door read: Took the boys out for ice-cream. Jackson sat down and cracked open a beer. He finished both and waited until his eyelids became too heavy to fight.
Two more years passed. Claire would only join him occasionally. When she would, she bugged him to go to Hayden or Kyle’s ball game. After several attempts he finally made one. He caught the final two innings of Hayden’s game and was able to see his son at bat one time.
Another year passes. The talks on the porch are less frequent and are mostly fights. Doubt creeps in as Jackson realizes their situation hasn’t changed in the three years he’s been working without a single day off. The only break he gets are shorter, eight-hour shifts, on Sundays.
All he ever wants is to move Claire and the boys into a real house, but unexpected expenses keep cutting that dream out from under him. First they need a new air conditioner unit. Then a water heater. Then his truck is totaled. Hayden gets braces. Kyle is expected to get some in a few years.
The next year, Jackson took the overnight shifts. The pay was better and he only worked twelve hours a day. He would come home at six in the morning, sit on the porch, and drink two beers. Claire would join him with her coffee. He would wait until the boys went to school, then he would clean up and head to bed.
He would wake up to find Claire cooking dinner and the boys watching something on the television. He would join them and ask them about their day. Sometimes he’d even go outside to play catch with them as the sun retreated behind the hills. Then he would go to work.
Ten years pass and Jackson no longer recognizes his reflection. His body is used to the constant exhaustion. He is only thirty-four years old, but his weathered skin makes him appear at least a decade older. Hayden readies to start his first year at the local college. They still live in the same run-down house, and Jackson sits outside on the porch every morning at six. His wife Claire still joins him from time to time with her coffee.
One day, after the boys left, he looked over and caught her staring at him. She had a silly grin on her face.
Normally he would have simply asked What?, but he surprised himself when he said, “I wish I could see myself through your eyes.”
“If you did, most of the time you would see an annoying ass.” She sat back and grinned.
“But…” she continued, “you’d also see someone who is more than a husband, or a father. You’d see a man who gives everything he has for the people he loves, and he keeps trying to give more when he has nothing left in the tank. I’m afraid he’ll give everything away until there is nothing left of him. You don’t know how all we wanted was for you to be here with us.”
He started to say something but she cut him off.
“I know you Jackson. I know every little thought in your head. You’re thinking right now ‘But someone had to work, to pay the bills, to provide‘ and you’d be right. You’ve done all those things and continue to do them. And the boys know how hard you work. They understand now why you were gone so much when they were younger. That’s why they still appreciate what little time they get with you. They look up to you. Even though Hayden is going to move out next week, he’ll come home often, and I know it will be to see you more than to see me. It’s true. You’re their dad.”
Claire stood up. “Now, when you finish that beer, come find me in the bedroom.” She went inside the small house and left a trail of clothing leading to their room.
Jackson sat on the porch and took a sip of his beer. As Claire was talking, the familiar exhaustion had dissipated into something else, and he found himself tearing up. He knew she could see it, and he knew she left before he lost control of it. He let the tears flow once he was alone. He made no sound as they dripped onto his dirt covered jeans.
When he finished his beer, he was calm, and he went inside to enjoy some time with his wife.