Wednesday, December 21

"Childhood's Cost"

Nicholas Kristos knocked at the front door, the door used by Boy Scouts selling popcorn and Jehovah's Witnesses offering salvation, and waited.

“Oh, Nicky!” Maria Kristos shrieked in joy when she answered. He tried to step past and out of the snow, and she wrapped him a tight embrace. “You should have told us you were coming. I would have cooked you something special.”

Nicholas made an effort to return the gesture, but he carried a briefcase.

“It's alright. I just need to see my father.”

Maria released Nicholas and stepped back to look him over.

“Oh, please, it's never any trouble. Anything you want, I'll make. You look too skinny.”

“Don't worry about it. I just need to speak with my father, and I'll be on my way.”

“Well, if you want to see George, he's reading in the living room, but just let me know if you change your mind. I feel like celebrating. I'll cook anything you want.”

Maria walked toward the kitchen, and Nicholas was alone for the moment. The temperature was the same as when he lived in the house, set ten degrees higher than where any reasonable person would keep it. It was cloying and stifling, and Nicholas had to concentrate to avoid feeling slow and stupid. He drew a breath and walked into the living room.

“Hello, Nick,” George said. He rose from his chair and opened his arms to embrace his son. Nicholas extended a hand, and George shook it after a pause. “How have you been?”

“I have come to settle my accounts.” Nicholas said it as though he had rehearsed it, careful to speak at just the right tempo and with enough bass to achieve an affect of determined authority.

“What do you mean? Are you in trouble? Do you need a loan?”

“No. I want to settle my accounts with you.”

“But you don't owe us anything.”

“Yes, I do.”

“I don't understand, Nick. We've never loaned you anything.”

“You have. I'm in incredible debt to you, and I want to pay you back for everything. I lived rent-free under your roof for eighteen years. I want to pay you for that. For every day of those eighteen years my breakfast, lunch and dinner were bought and prepared for me through yours and my mother's labor. I want to pay you for that. I want to pay you for every piece of clothing you ever bought for me, for every school fee you ever paid, for every toy. I want to balance the books.”

George gave a gentle chuckle.

“Really, son, we don't expect anything from you. It was a gift. Forget about it. Sit down, and we'll talk.”

“Then I have no reason to stay here. I have a long drive back to Seattle.” Nicholas turned to leave.

“Wait, Nick,” George sighed. “Stay. We'll talk about it.”

Nicholas placed his briefcase on the coffee table, opened the clasps and passed the papers to George.

“I've organized your expenses and my debt into seven categories: food, lodging, clothes, transportation, education, medical and entertainment. These, in turn, are organized by year. The two columns on the far right reflect the expenses for the year and their current value adjusted for inflation. Please feel free to review my estimates and revise them if you think they are wrong or if I missed anything significant, but I hope you will find the sum to your liking.” Nicholas tapped a number, bold and several sizes larger than anything else, on the top page.

“You could pay this right now?”

“I have the check ready. You just need to confirm my estimates.”

George nodded, took his bifocals from atop the magazine where he had left them and began reading. After a little while, he said, “If you really want to go through with this, we should do it right.” George left and returned with two decades worth of files on taxes balanced atop a cardboard box. Inside were tens of notebooks, bound with rubber bands. “Your mother's journals,” George explained. “Every day she listed everything that happened. Tax records are fine, but these will fill in any gaps. You should make yourself comfortable. This may take awhile.”

George leaned back in his chair. Nicholas sat down straight on the sofa and didn't take off his coat. Maria stepped in briefly to put down two cups of tea and a tray of cookies and sweets before she bustled out.

After awhile, his eyes still on the records and estimates, George asked, “How are you doing?”

“I'm doing well. I spent the summer looking at potential sites for Gyro Place franchises in Phoenix, Denver and San Francisco.”

“I'm glad to hear that. Your restaurant deserves to do well. Your mother and I went down to the one on King a few months ago. I was impressed. The food and service were much better than McDonald's or KFC.”

“Thank you.”

“San Francisco, though. That's exciting. How did you like the City by the Bay? Did you catch a Giants game? I've always been interested in visiting, but the opportunity never came up.”

“It was fine.”

The silence returned. George kept a pen between his fingers but had not written a single note. When he finished comparing Nicholas' estimates and the tax record, he picked through the journals until he found the oldest.

“Is this really necessary?”

“Of course. Anything worth doing is worth doing right, remember?”

Nicholas collapsed back in the sofa and drummed his fingers on the end table.

George stopped on one page and chuckled.

“I didn't remember this.”

Nicholas let his tea continue to grow cold.

“Don't you want to know what it is?”George asked.


A few minutes later George said. “Do you remember when you went to that summer acting camp? Do you remember speaking with that terrible British accent for weeks afterward? I was only glad that you stopped before school started again.”

“That was a long time ago. I included it in my estimates.”

There was silence again, and George continued to go through the journals. When he was through the last of them, failing several times more to draw Nicholas out, he left for a moment and brought back a laptop.

“What's that for?” Nicholas asked, finally allowing his irritation to distort his voice.

“I just want to check your numbers for inflation. I want to make sure they're right.”

“They're right. You don't have to do that.”

“Just the same, I'd like to check them myself. It'd be an easy mistake to make when you're concentrating on getting everything else right.”

“No, really, they're right.

“We'll see.”

George tapped at the keys and looked from the screen to the estimates, double checking every number.

“It looks like you were right.”

“I told you I was.”

“It never hurts to double check. Better the few seconds for a second look than embarrassing yourself with a stupid mistake.”
George gathered the papers and squared them.

“There were a few little things, I think, but everything looks good. I don't think I need to change anything. This was an impressive job you did. Very professional. You should be proud.”

“Of course.”

Nicholas took the papers back, leaving only the contract for his father to sign, and rose to leave.

“Actually,” George set, a look of fear crossing his face, “I've just thought of something. All of these papers calculate just the financial aspect of raising you. What about your values? Doesn't that count for something? What if I hadn't pushed you on your homework, to always strive to do your best and get an 'A' and not just coast to the 'B'? Would you own a fast-food chain then or would you have settled for something easier?”

“Maybe not, but I think that's balanced out by the bills I'm paying my therapist now.”

“I didn't know you were seeing a therapist.”

“I never told you.”

“Is something wrong? Can I help?”

“You could sign and let me leave.”

“I just thought of something else. What about our opportunity costs? It's not just what we paid to raise you. You didn't calculate at all what we gave up to raise you. You know your mother forced me to turn down a job offer that would have made me the regional manager in Seattle because she didn't want to take you away from your cousins and friends. What about all that? Sit down and stay awhile, and we'll figure it out.”

“How about this?”

Nicholas scribbled a new number, twice the original estimate, and pushed it toward George.

“This will make you richer than you ever dreamed. You physically won't be able to spend all of that money in how ever many years you have left.”

“I would like to check the numbers one last time.”

“You already have.”

“Would you like to know what we'll do with the money?”

“It doesn't matter to me.”

“I think I'd like to buy a house outside the city, some place small where there isn't so much traffic. Your mother will probably want to send some of it to her cousin in Athens. You probably don't know, but she's working with immigrants there and could use the funding.”

Nicholas didn't say anything, and George sighed, defeated.

“Where do I sign?”

Nicholas tapped the line.

As George wrote his signature and the date, he said “This is silly, you know. You've already paid me back. You're happy and successful. That's all I ever wanted for you. Your mother would like it if you got married and raised a family, but she just wants you to be happy, too. That's better than anything you could pay us.”

Nicholas took the signed contract. He scribbled a new check and put it on the coffee table in front of George.

George said, “If I disappointed you or somehow hurt you to make you want to do this, I'm sorry.”

“You haven't done anything wrong. I just wanted to settle my accounts.”

Maria walked into the room.

“I know you said you didn't want anything, but it's already getting dark, and I didn't want you to leave hungry. I set a place for you, and the eggplant's almost done in the oven,” she said.

“You could pay us for it, if it'd make you feel better,” George said quietly. “I think fifteen dollars would be fair for your mother's labor and the ingredients.”

“George,” Maria said, shocked. “There's no need for that.”

Nick didn't pause.

“No, I really have to go.”

His parents didn't protest and followed Nicholas to the entrance. When Nick opened the door to let himself out, Maria asked, “Do you think you'll come back for Easter this year?”

Nicholas said, “I don't think so,” and walked out into the snow and night.

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