Summer of ’85
Kevin Griffith and his father David drive into the little town of Avondale from the airport. David’s ex-wife Elaine has insisted that he become involved in his thirteen-year-old son’s life for the summer. It’s 1985 and New York City is no place for a young kid to be on his own, so David begrudgingly arranges to temporarily handle his brokerage firm by phone and fax from his father’s suburban home in Pennsylvania with frequent side trips to New York City when necessary.
When father and son pull into Bill Griffith’s driveway, the years of tension between David and his father are instantly rekindled. Young Kevin, who barely knows his father and doesn’t remember his grandfather at all, is unaware of their history.
Thirty-eight-year-old David has a summer agenda. He wants to sell his father’s home and place the old man in an assisted living facility thereby severing all ties with his childhood home and tragic memories.
Life in Avondale is very different for Kevin. In Los Angeles, he didn’t really have any friends his own age and spends most of his time watching TV. Avondale is the epitome of small-town living – one grocery store, one barbershop, and one park. Most of the kids Kevin’s age have gone off to summer camp and since Grandpa Bill doesn’t have a reliable television, the boy makes friends with the garbage men, particularly Thomas Johnson, an old high school football teammate of David’s and one of the few black men living in Avondale.
Kevin also enjoys the company of the colorful old timers he meets. Jack “Booney” Boone, the barber, teaches Kevin how to fish. Everett, the grocer, shares Kevin’s enthusiasm for baseball and Lucy Holiday, Grandpa Bill’s neighbor, spends time with the boy gardening, reading books and listening to Kevin.
One morning Kevin tries to impress his father and endear himself to his grandfather by making French toast and almost burns the house down. When the fire trucks leave and the smoke clears, David uses this incident to confront Bill about his inability to live alone. This is the first time Kevin realizes David has an agenda other than spending quality time with him.
Lucy introduces Kevin to the Henderson family. Harry and Kate were in David’s class and have a daughter Louise, a few years older than Kevin.
One day while exploring Bill’s cluttered garage, Kevin and Louise find two things, a World War II photo of Bill (that bears a stunning resemblance to Kevin) and their parents’ high school yearbook. Noting the dedication to Elizabeth Griffith, Kevin learns for the first time that his father had a sister who was killed in a car accident. No one in the family will talk about it, so he confides in Lucy.
Bill and Lucy visit Shady Pines, one of the facilities where David would like his father to sign-on, but Bill isn’t ready to leave his home and his friends. He resents David trying to control his life.
After a successful fishing trip with Bill and Booney, Kevin arrives home to find his father and Thomas shooting hoops in the alley and talking about their old football days. The men draw Kevin into the basketball game and even offer him his first beer while they relax on the lawn. It marks the first time Kevin sees David actually having fun. Kevin tells them Booney mentioned his son Michael would be coming to Avondale and both Thomas and David bemoan how contemptible Booney’s son was in high school.
Kevin gets a letter from his mother. She’s dating for the first time since the divorce and he doesn’t quite know how to deal with it.
David goes to the local watering hole and runs into Michael Boone, who’s looking for investors in a questionable real estate deal. David eyes the waitress closing up and spends the better part of the night with her. Arriving home, he finds Bill has locked him out, so David sleeps on the old metal glider on the porch. David is defensive about his behavior the next morning.
After a memorable small town Fourth of July celebration, Everett gets tickets to a Pirates baseball game. Grandpa Bill, Booney, Everett, Kevin, David, and Thomas have a great day at the park, but upon arriving home find that Everett’s wife has died suddenly of an aneurysm.
Kevin’s summer takes a turn when he witnesses how a small town reacts to death. The gathering at Bill’s house afterward becomes ugly when David gets drunk and no one is spared his bitterness. He lashes out at Lucy’s attention to Bill, claiming she undermined his parents’ marriage when his mother was alive. He accuses Thomas of trying to “steal” his son as well as having an affair with a white, married classmate. Kevin breaks down in tears and is comforted by Lucy. After a physical confrontation, Thomas does his best to sober David up, not leaving before he expresses his contempt for him.
Emotionally upset, Kevin wants desperately to go home to California, but his mother is away for the weekend when he calls. Everett sends over a new baseball mitt and grandfather and grandson play catch and David puts the answering machine on and joins them. It’s one of the few times the three generations are together without tension. After a sinful lunch of a bucket of chicken and greasy fries, Kevin finds the courage to ask David about the car accident and David’s sister Elizabeth.
Even after years of therapy, David, who was seventeen years old and driving the car, is unable to talk about the crash, but he does tell Kevin about Elizabeth and what a terrific little sister she was. The problem was, and is, that neither Bill nor David ever spoke about the girl’s death.
As the end of summer nears, Bill is starting to dread the emptiness of his home after Kevin leaves and is thinking for the first time that maybe David is right about moving into an assisted living facility.
Even though Kevin misses his mother, he doesn’t want to leave his new friends and the feeling he has of belonging to a community for the first time in his life. Kevin decides to strike a deal with David. Give him one year to stay in Avondale, he’ll go to school, his mom can come on holidays, and grandfather and grandson will take care of each other. If Bill takes a turn for the worse, Kevin promises to call David and go to Plan B – Kevin back to California and Bill to a home.
David doesn’t like being manipulated by his son, but the idea could work to his advantage for a few months, so he agrees.
Bill, Lucy, and his old cronies are ecstatic about the idea. As David waits for the cab to take him to the airport David confronts Bill with his disappointment in him as a father. Bill, who is a man of few words, tells David that no matter how successful David is or how much money he makes, he’ll never be happy in life until he acknowledges his own shortcomings and opens his heart to people who care about him, like Kevin.
David drives away leaving Bill and Kevin on the front porch of his childhood home in Avondale.
All Kevin had wanted to do was surprise his Grandfather. When he first heard about the oatmeal and prune breakfast Bill ate day in and day out for years, Kev was sure he could please the old man with his famous French toast.
His Mom praised Kevin’s cooking skills to all her friends and with good reason. Since he was eight years old he arrived home from school two hours before she got home from work and he had started dinner. At first, it was just frozen pot pies and boiled hot dogs, but he quickly bored of eating as well as preparing this fare. On the shopping channel on TV they advertised an electric wok with “instructions even a small child could follow.” Kevin thought it looked like a fun way to cook and there would be only one pan to wash since all the ingredients was stirred around in the wok. So, he called in, the one and only time he used his Mom’s charge card.
Since he arrived home before Elaine, she never knew when the package arrived; but, the next time they went to the market, Kevin had added very strange items to their shopping list. “The bamboo shoots, water chestnuts and ginger root were an experiment for science class,” he told her.
The very next evening, when she arrived home, the faint smell of burned rice was combined with a strong aroma of soy sauce. Peaking around the kitchen door, she saw Kevin, whisk in hand, standing on a chair so he could look down into the wok, beaming from ear to ear.
“Are you hungry, Mama-San?” he dumped the large chunks of vegetables into the sizzling oil.
It was one of the moments a mother never forgets.
Elaine stepped forward, “Oh, Kevin, it smells wonderful.” She held back her tears the best she could. “Let me freshen up for this feast.”
“Well, don’t be too long. This Chinese stuff cooks up real fast.”
In the bathroom, she wiped away her running mascara. Every day she struggled just to get by and more often than not she wondered how she would make it work, financially, as well as emotionally. Elaine hated David for leaving her, she even hated him for making her pregnant at seventeen. She hated the men she dated now who balked when she introduced them to the young boy who meant so much to her. Life would be so much easier if she was alone, and she hated herself for even having that thought. Kevin, ever since he could walk and talk, had been her joy. He clued into her moods quicker than she did and he had the ability to make her laugh. Even though she resented David and his money and his distance, she felt sorry for him because he was missing out on the best part, knowing his son.
Applying a little make-up to tone down her rosy cheeks and removing the running mascara, Elaine opened the bathroom door as Kevin was placing the plates of veggies and rice on the coffee table in front of the TV. They sat on the cushions on the floor, struggling with the wooden chopsticks included in the wok package, and watched JEOPARDY. It was one of their best nights.
Early on out of necessity, but more out of the joy of pleasing one another, Kevin and Elaine became cooks. They planned easy menus during the week when time was limited, but on Saturday and Sunday they feasted. Even doing the dishes was something they made a game of since frequently they used every pot in the house.
So Kevin was more than anxious to show Grampa Bill and David his kitchen skills. David could order out with the best of them and Bill, since Mary’s death, only really ate well when he went to Lucy’s on Tuesday and Friday evenings.
Wednesday morning after David had left on his run, Kevin snuck downstairs and began preparing his French toast extraordinaire.
As David jogged slowly around the corner an hour after, he had left the house he noticed the fire engines.
“Oh, my God.”
He sprinted the hundred yards to the house and through the backyard as several of the young volunteer fireman were heading out of the house.
“What happened? Is my father alright? Kevin, what about Kev…?”
His words exploded out.
“It’s OK, mister, just a little burnt toast for breakfast but sometimes that can cause a lot of smoke in an old kitchen like this one.”
David bent over at the waist to catch his breath and gather his thoughts. Winded, he held his side as he tried to stand tall and noticed the crowd of neighbors on the lawn with their morning coffee mugs. Lucy was rubbing his father’s shoulders who was seated in a lawn chair staring at the back door.
“Kevin?” David yelled startling the boy who was talking to the driver of the fire truck. “What happened here?”
Kevin, excited by the mornings attention, jogged over to his father.
“It was nothin’ really, Dad, my French toast got out of hand…”
“I knew something like this would happen sooner or later, I just knew it,” the volume of his voice increasing as he turned towards Bill. “You can’t be trusted anymore, for Christ’s sake, you could have killed Kevin and yourself. Even burned down the house.” David paced in front of the back porch his voice racing with the possibilities.
“Now wait a minute, David,” Lucy interrupted, “don’t talk to your fath…”
“No, you wait a minute. This is my family and I’ll talk to them anyway I Goddam please. Do you have any idea what this kind of thing means?”
The fire truck slowly pulled away and the remaining neighbors, ever mindful of Bill’s privacy, silently backed away heading for their own kitchen doors.
Lucy and David stood facing each other as Kevin watched with wide eyes. All three spoke at once.
“I know exactly what ‘this kind of thing’ means.”
“Why are you here anyway? Isn’t there someone else’s life you can fuck with besides my father’s?”
“Dad, Dad let me explain,” Kevin was crying trying to push between Lucy and David. “It was my fault, honest.”
Bill snapped out of his stupor and stood quickly.
“Stop it. Stop it right now.” The firmness of his voice silenced the trio.
Sweat still dripped off David’s face from the run, and he breathed rapidly through clenched teeth. Jaw set firmly he started to speak and Bill silenced him just by raising his left hand.
“First, apologize to Lucy for your language.”
“Dad, this is not a high school cotillion. Do you realize we could have lost everything in a matter of minutes?”
Bill’s speech softened to a whisper, “but we didn’t.”
Kevin, slightly hidden, enveloped by Lucy’s warm arms, tried to stifle his sobs, as he watched the men square off.
“Alright, I apologize,” David rushed. “But let’s talk about this as family, inside.”
David grabbed Kevin’s arm angrily as if he were still a small child and pounded up the back steps. Bill started to defend Lucy’s presence but Lucy interrupted, “Why don’t I go home and put a fresh pot of coffee on and whip up some of my famous biscuits? Kevin want to come along?”
Disentangling himself from David’s grasp and drying his eyes on the tea towel he had tied to his waist he said, “Thanks, Lucy, but I’ll stay with Grampa Bill and Dad.”
Bill, standing by the kitchen sink, started to wipe off the smoke tainted coffee mug when David spoke.
“Sit down, Dad. Let’s talk.”
Kevin still hesitant after witnessing his father’s temper leaned awkwardly against the screen door, trying to be calm but ready for a quick escape out the back if necessary.
“Com’on, Kevin, sit. Let’s all regroup.” David’s demeanor was emotionless now not unlike the way he approached a sales meeting.
The boy and the old man each pulled a chair up to the table and stared at David as he clasped his hands together.
“Now, Dad. This morning is something I feared for a long time. At your age, so many things can happen that could cause you harm and you aren’t quick enough to respond. I’m concerned for your safety and I don’t know how you can be safe alone in this big house any more.”
Bill sat stoically. Looking at David intently, his hands ever so slowly rubbing his knees.
David cleared his throat to go on, but Kevin interrupted.
“But, Dad, let me tell you how it hap…”
“Kevin, I think you should listen,” David’s tone was curt as if he’d just admonished a junior executive. Kevin hung his head.
“Wait here a minute, I have something to share with you.” David left the room and Kevin looked at Grampa and started to speak.
Grampa hushed him, “The man has something on his mind. Let’s hear what it is.”
The chair screeched across the old linoleum as David sat down and flared the colorful pamphlets on the table like a dealer at a Las Vegas casino.
“I’ve been inquiring around and there are a number of well run, clean assisted living homes within the county where I think you would be safe and comfortable.” The pace of David’s speech increased as he anticipated resistance. “Now, before you say anything, Dad, try to keep an open mind. Most people enjoy being around other people their own age, and you would have the freedom to have a garden there and they have lots of interesting activities and you can even keep your own bedroom furniture.” David raced on. “Most importantly, you’ll be safe and incidences like this morning won’t happen, can’t happen.” David finally looked his father in the eye. “So what do you think? Do you want to look at a few first hand on the weekend? I’ll negotiate the best deal possible, and Kevin, you could come along and check it out.”
David was pulling out all the stops and still not getting any reaction from the old man.
A minute passed, then two, as Bill methodically picked up one folder then another gently placing them in a row on the scratched table top. Kevin sat slumped over the table, his chin resting on his forearms, eyes moving from one man to the other.
Finally, “So this is why you came home?” Bill looked David dead on.