by N. Joy Lutton
part 1 of 2
“I’m not leaving her in frickin’ Kentucky!” The words replayed, clear as if they were particles lingering in the stale cabin air above him in seat 21E. He replayed the days-old conversation, still feeling the profanity boiling up to his lips but somehow, miraculously stopped from being shouted to his father.
On the plane, Jake had nothing to do but flip through Skymall and relive that conversation and the events to follow, and think, as he looked down at the ancient, faded Star Wars thermos in hand. The pencilled outline of Han Solo pointed an invisible gun from the washed-out blue container. Inside the childhood flask, lay the remains of his childhood friend: his dog Pongo.
The dialogue in his head, the story of the events that had transpired, continued as he patted the blue cup lid over Pongo’s ashes. “I should’ve never left her in Kentucky. She hated it there. I’ll be damned if I leave her to be buried there, stuck in Kentucky ground forever. I’m coming to Kentucky to get her.” He barked at his father over the phone, and instructed to have her cremated. That he was coming to Kentucky to get her.
“But Jakey, her home is here. Las Vegas wasn’t her home. She’d never been there. Even if she had, I don’t think she’d like it too much. You know how she got around strange people.” His father was quick to amend any infraction that would result in Jake’s hanging up. “Strangers, I mean. Her home was always here in Kentucky, with me and your ma. And you. That is, before you left.”
We gotta go into this again, Jake thought, his hackles rising instantly.
“Why’d you go so far, Jakey? I never understood why you had to go all the way out west, so far from your family. Too far. Why couldn’t you be like all your friends from school and get a job in Nashville? Or even in D.C., only a long-drive aways.” The old man grew silent, and Jake knew, even with thousands of miles separating them, his father was crying.
“Jesus, Dad. We’ve been through this over and over. I love you and I love... loved Mom. But I don’t belong in Kentucky.” A snot-filled sniffle hit Jake’s ear, and he wondered if it was his use of the word damned, or the message conveyed in his words.
His father, the pinnacle of a Southern gentleman, rarely let a curse pass his lips, and when he did, it was never more than a “heck” or “hell’s bells.” A trait that could not be easily shook off in a son, one of the reasons he couldn’t seem to find his community in Las Vegas, for who wants to be friends with the weirdo who won’t swear?
He had to learn to say the word “fuck” like a baby learning to walk, shaky and stunted, but grinning when the journey was completed. “Thanks, Dad,” he would mumble under his breath as he got yet another one of those looks when he let a “frick” or “heck” fly out.
Jake wished he could take back the “damn” he had shouted at his father, and more. The old man had been through enough, Jake thought, without finding out his only son had fled west to become a cusser, yet another flaw of his only child.
With a wife in the grave less than three months, Jacob Morgan, Sr. would come home to an almost empty house. Only a dachshund and doctors’ bills waiting for him after a day working the fields of the family farm. Even after watching his wife being eaten away into nothingness for six months, he still expected her to greet him at the door with a kiss on the cheek as she had for the past 32 years.
But that tradition stopped a few weeks before the tumor was discovered, back when they knew something was horribly wrong but didn’t have a name for it yet. The reason why Mary Anne struggled to pull herself off the bed or chair, couldn’t remember all the ingredients in her county-famous pumpkin spice pie, and couldn’t be trusted with the task of giving Pongo her food in the morning and afternoon. “I musta forgot,” she would mumble to her husband as she shuffled back into the bedroom and curled up under the sheets. Pongo, unconvinced, growled at the space Mary Anne had stood, and begged the man of the house to address her hunger.
The days-long headaches were the cause for the call and visit with Dr. Jordan. After several tests, he had named the fiend in Mary Anne’s head and gave the Morgans an end date for their marriage. Middle-school sweethearts, they’d be lucky, he said, if they could see their 33rd anniversary. Very lucky.
Mr. Morgan, never the bad-news bearer, had his wife tell her fledgling son. Even weeks after his father placed her in the ground, Jake would replay the saved message.
“Jake, your dad and I went to see Dr. Jordan again today. To find out what all them tests said. Remember how I went into the tube, the MRI? Well the results came back from it. It says I’ve got a brain tumor, and there isn’t too much they can do.
“Your dad wants to go to Knoxville to see a specialist, who might be able to do something to get rid of it. But we’ve been seeing Dr. Jordan so long, I think he knows what’s best. So I’m gonna start going to chemotherapy, like he says.
“It’ll make my hair fall out, and he says I’ll be even weaker than I am now, but that don’t matter if there’s a chance it’ll get rid of this thing. I’m really sorry for leaving this message, but ya never answer your phone or call us back, so I just wanted to make sure you knew. Okay, kiddo? I love you.”
That was the worst part of it. No berating him for leaving or not visiting, no guilt trips or even a simple request to call back. Just here’s what’s going on, and I still love you. Always loving and accepting of him. Regardless.
The message was what remained of his mother: the way he knew her, before nonsense spit from her mouth across the telephone wires. Among the swirling and strange words, Jake could make out one repeated request from his mother.
“Jake, I’m so tired, and having trouble remembering things. Things I’d never thought of forgetting. If I didn’t have your picture beside the bed, I think I’d forget what you look like. The one with your blond hair covering your eye. Where you’re wearing the stripe sweater that looks like a prison outfit.”
She sighed. “I don’t even know what you look like, I haven’t seen you since you left, what, two years now?” In the background, Jake heard Pongo bark three times, as if to correct the forgetful woman.
“Three, Mom,” he said under his breath, afraid to admit to his mother and himself it had been so long. “Three years next month,” he finally conceded. “But I’ve been busy with work. I’m living off credit cards. Rent’s so high, and it’s really expensive out here, Mom. It’s not like Kentucky.”
“I know, Jake. And I know I’m asking for a lot, but I really want to see you before I... before I can’t remember who you are and can’t understand why I should be so happy to see you. I look at your picture every day and say to myself, ‘This is Jake. My sunshine and the reason I have to hold on.’ Please, Jacob, give your sick mother the best gift she could ask for. Your dad can pay for it. Just please come home.”
“Come on. You two have your hands full with all the bills from the doctor’s, right?” He said without waiting for her to answer. “Mom, I know I haven’t been able to come to visit you since I moved out here, but I love you and want to make you happy. I’ll see what I can do.”
He could imagine the small smile on his mother’s face as she thanked him, like a saint healing all her wounds. His father took the phone and said, “You’ve made your mother happy. For once. I’m glad you’re coming home. See you soon, Jakey.”
Home, he thought as he hung up the phone. It took two years to get the money to leave that place, and now I am going to spend more to get back there for God only knows how long. He told himself that was why he had put off a visit so long. The money.
Of course, but it had taken him years of planning and saving to get out and to fly back, visit his family, that is the woman he was related to, who was family and all his friends he considered such; well, it would be like a fish taking a swim in the deepest part of the ocean only to find an octopus wrappings its many tentacles around the fish, struggling to break free until there was no hope of escape. If he went back, he asked himself, would he be able to get out again?
But if he was honest with himself, something that only happened with enough liquor and more than enough rambles to a willing listening audience, that was a lame excuse. He left once, pulled off the bandage, and the wound had healed and even with another bandage applied, it would not have the same infected stink.
On those honest nights, with a few shots bought for him from a kindly, toothsome traveler, a different scenario cropped up. One where he had married a girl, any girl, back in Kentucky, did as God had intended and scioned a few kids and made his mother what she wanted to be since the birth of her son: a grandmother.
When he confessed to her, and only her, he watched as she crunched the numbers and came out with a sum of zero grandkids. Despite her upbringing and her church-every-Sunday philosophy, none of it seemed to matter when he came to her. It was never what her religion told her, or what was whispered about “poor Mary Anne” that hurt her; it was what he was robbing from her. And if he could change who he was for anyone, it wouldn’t have been anyone but her.
But he couldn’t, and therefore, he’d slur to the unlucky gambling addicts who happened by the bar at the wrong time, the toothsome young tourist long gone back to The Venetian or Paris, how could he ever face her again?
Copyright © 2014 by N. Joy Lutton