Chapter OneWeek One: The Idea
"Dave," my dad said at dinner, "it's time you got yourself a summer job."
"What?" I said. The only reason I didn't choke on my spaghetti meat loaf is because he couldn't have said what I'd thought he said. True, it was the night before the first day of summer vacation. But I was only fifteen years old. For most kids, fifteen is the year of the optional summer job: You can get one if you really want one, but it isn't required. And I really, really didn't want one.
My dad is a real man's man, a straight-backed guy with a buzz cut and a deep rumble of a voice. For him, things are always very black-and-white.
"It's definitely time you got a job," he repeated, gnawing on the meat loaf like a grizzly bear. "Get out in the world, meet some up-and-comers. After all, you are who you surround yourself with." This last part was something my dad was always saying—something about birds of a feather and all that.
But even now I didn't choke on my food, because I was still certain he was kidding about my getting a job. Even if in the weirdest reaches of some wild, alternate universe where my father suddenly did think I should get a job the summer of my fifteenth year, even he wasn't so cruel as to bring it up on the night before the start of my vacation.
"Yeah, right," I said, taking another bite. "How about superspy? Between shadowing drug runners in South American nightclubs and cracking safes in Monaco casinos, I'll still be able to sleep in."
My dad sighed. "Dave, Dave, Dave," he said. This was his standard expression of disappointment in me. "It's high time you stop relying on your mother and me for money. This is the summer you start paying your own way in life. No more allowance for you. This is the summer you get a job."
Now I choked on my spaghetti meat loaf! Not only was my dad forcing me to get a summer job, he was also stopping my allowance?
"But, Dad!" I said. "I'm only fifteen!"
"What does that have to do with anything?" he said.
I tried to explain how fifteen was the summer of the optional summer job. "Says who?" my dad said.
"Says everyone!" I said. "That's just the way it works! It's probably in the Bible somewhere. Or maybe the U.S. Constitution."
"I don't think so."
I looked at my mom, but she was blankly sipping her raspberry-mango juice blend. It was clear I wasn't going to get any help from her.
"Well, it should be," I said.
My dad just kept wolfing down the spaghetti meat loaf.
Before I go too far on this, I need to explain how I feel about work in general and summer jobs in particular. I don't want anyone thinking I am some sort of anti-American or anti-work deadbeat.
I believe in work. Without it, civilization collapses: Buildings don't get built, pipes stay clogged, breath mints would go unstocked. Personally, I like it when I use the public restroom and find that the toilet paper dispenser has been refilled.
I also believe in the idea that the harder you work, the more you should get paid. You're too tired to work? Well, then I guess you're also too tired to eat.
Work is important. I get that.
That said, I do work. Hard. At school, for ten months every year. Unlike a lot of people my age, I take school very seriously. My eighth-grade report on Bolivia was as comprehensive as anything in The New York Times Almanac. One of my freshman English essays was almost frighteningly insightful into the significance of those worn steps at the school in A Separate Peace.
And, yes, I certainly understand that some people, even some fifteen-year-olds, need to work. They're saving for college, or they have to help pay bills around the house. For them, a summer job at fifteen isn't optional. But my dad makes a good living as a land surveyor. He wears silk ties! And my mom is stay-at-home. We aren't poor.
The adults won't tell you this, but I absolutely knew it in my bones to be true: Once you take that first summer job, once you start working, you're then expected to keep working. For the rest of your life! Once you start, you can't stop, ever—not until you retire or you die.
Sure, I knew I'd have to take a job next summer. But now, I had two uninterrupted months of absolute freedom ahead of me—two summer months of living life completely on my own terms. I knew they were probably my last two months of freedom for the next fifty years.
The point is, dad or no dad, I was going to be taking a job the summer of my fifteenth year over my dead body.
"My dad is making me get a summer job," said my best friend Victor Medina later that night. "And he's stopping my allowance."
"You're kidding!" said my other best friend, Curtis Snow. "So is mine!"
We'd met in the old bomb shelter in Curtis's backyard after dinner. The shelter had been dug in the early 1960s but had been abandoned until Curtis had talked his parents into letting him, Victor, and me turn it into our own personal hideaway. And what a hideaway! We'd brought in carpet, a really plush couch, and these giant oversize floor pillows. We'd also wired in electricity from the house, which let us add things like a little refrigerator, a movie-style popcorn popper, even a flat-screen television and game system—all top-notch stuff that we'd picked up at bargain prices at garage sales and on eBay. Even Curtis's parents didn't know about everything we had hoarded in there, mostly because we'd long since installed a thick lock on the door, designed to be so secure that it would even keep out panicky neighbors clawing to get inside after the launch of a nuclear missile, and no one knew the combination except us.
Excerpted from Project Sweet Life by Brent Hartinger Copyright © 2009 by Brent Hartinger. Excerpted by permission.
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