Nightmare Jack, II
by Tamara Podella
|Nightmare Jack appears in issue 418.||
I splashed my face with lukewarm water from the airplane lavatory tap, fumbled open my ziplock bag and applied some face cream and mascara, all the while trying not to meet my eyes in the mirror. I hadn’t been able to look at myself since I got the news of Aunt Cathy’s death, mainly because I felt ashamed about having cut her off completely, but also because it brought up other memories, good ones and bad, that I’d rather not think about. I loosened my braid, letting my long hair fall into my face, popped a nicotine gum and took three long breaths to calm my racing heart.
Ignoring the stewardess’s deprecative glances — the plane had already begun descending when I’d raced for the loo — I slipped back into my aisle seat and fastened my seat belt. I didn’t want to look, but in that instant the plane tilted and there it was, the Indian Ocean, majestic Table Mountain wearing its table cloth of cloud, and there the perfect curve across to Lion’s Head, looking so small, so familiar that my heart ached with longing, as though they had been waiting there for me all this time. As though twenty years meant nothing, and I had never left.
Aunt Cathy’s boyfriend, Evin, was a broad-shouldered oke with a beer belly, a big yellow dog on the back of his bakkie, and a dreamcatcher tattoo, the combination of which surprised me as well as endeared him to me immediately. “Your aunt was a very special lady,” he said, lighting up a Camel and offering me the packet.
Just like the sudden sense of guilt that flared up in my solar plexus, the gum began to burn my tongue and I moved it to the fold of my cheek. “No thanks, I quit, but go ahead, I don’t mind.” We rode on in silence all the way past the townships. I could have said something like “Yes, she was a lovely person. She looked after me for two years and got me through school on her waitress’s salary,” But I didn’t. Evin didn’t look like the kind of person fond of bullshit. “How long did you know her for?” I asked instead.
“Oh, just eleven months. We met at a quiz night at the pub. Liked her right away. She wore a green dress and cowboy boots, your aunt, and she had that little pair of glasses, you know, like she was from the seventies. She looked like Susan Sarandon in that road movie... what’s it called... ”
“Thelma and Louise?” I offered. Already, there was a lump in my throat the size of a golf course.
“Ja, exactly. Thelma and Louise. She was so tough, although she already knew she had cancer then. She took us into her home, Yellow and me, because my old lady and I had just split up and, hell... I took care of her, you know? I stayed with her until the end. But right until the end it felt like she was really taking care of me. Teaching me about life. The night she died, Yellow howled and howled, and I let him. I howled with him.”
Damn. The grief for her hit me like a punch in the abdomen. Evin handed me a tissue — how could he know that I hadn’t cried in twenty years and definitely wasn’t about to now? Once my best friend Maggie actually punched my nose to get some tears out. She said it wasn’t healthy for me to keep them all inside. The tears that came then had felt fake, kind of like the water in the airplane lavatory feels like it’s not real water. I dabbed at my eyes behind my sunglasses but doubted that Evin was fooled.
“The way you talk about her... .” I finally said. “It sounds nothing like the person I knew. Aunt Cathy would never have dated a guy like you. She hated animals and... I think she didn’t like me much either. She never had time for anything. For living.”
He leaned over to open a minifridge attached by a usb cable. It was just large enough for four steaming cold beers. Sighing, he opened one with his teeth and wordlessly handed it to me. “Don’t let it get to you, girl.”
He scratched his stubbly neck. “The guilt,” he said.
“What the hell do you know about my guilt?”
“Your face is like an open book, sweetheart. Just do me a favour, OK?” He reached over to push down my sunglasses so that he could look me in the eye. “Don’t let this whole thing get to you. From what you said, it sounds like she used to be nasty, so you were right to leave and never look back. God knows how or when she got to be the person I knew. It doesn’t matter. In the end, she didn’t blame you, so don’t go blaming yourself. End of story.”
“Fine,” I said, put my feet up and drank my beer, even though it was ten in the morning. Everyone in London always told me I had a poker face, except for when I sang, and up until now, I had been proud of it too. I was doing pretty damn well. I was thirty-eight and my band had just recorded their fourth album. Maggie and I were running a little music school where I taught songwriting and Maggie taught bass. I was much tougher than the person I had been twenty years ago, with killer abs and crow’s feet I loathed but that Maggie told me were my best feature, and yet only an hour ago, as the plane descended over Cape Town, I had felt like a fourteen year old who had just lost her mother. Like the orphan I was.
And then along came this scruffy old rocker, took one look at me and saw me, really saw me for who I was, a clean cut through all the crap. And just like that, in less than half an hour, a sixty-five-year-old with an increasing resemblance to Lemmy Kilmister had managed to make me doubt that I really knew what I was doing with my life. I slugged my beer, sending him furtive glances, until he laughed, loudly, regular har har hars, took out a beer for himself and said, “So I hear you’re a singer, how about I get you a gig at the pub tonight? We can crash for a few hours now, then we stay up all night and the funeral will be a piece of cake tomorrow. What do you say?”
“Sounds like a plan,” I said, and we laughed loud, reckless laughs, had another beer and roared out I’m so Bad (Baby I don’t Care) and Love Me Forever — bingo, he knew all the words — until he dropped me off at my hotel, where I fell into a deep, guiltless slumber.
At five a.m. we were just about the only souls left in the pub, except for three teenage boys sleeping it off in a booth, and the owner, Matches, Evin’s cousin, who apparently never slept.
“So what’s the story? “Evin suddenly asked me. “Why is there no ring on your finger? No freckly English lad making the trip with you?”
“Oh, that’s kind of a long story... ”
He looked at the non-existent watch on his hairy wrist and shrugged. “Funeral’s in five hours. Will that be enough time?”
I snorted into the froth on my Guinness. Just then, Matches changed the CD and I drew in a drunken breath to the first chords of State of Love and Trust. “When my mom started getting really bad, I was around sixteen, I’d often find her lying passed out on the couch when I got home from school. I had a boyfriend...he’d just moved back to Cape Town with his little brother and their guardian, this guy they called Uncle Shaggy. It was Uncle Shaggy who convinced my mom that she needed to go to a clinic and get sober. While she was there, I had the best time of my life. Uncle Shaggy had this great place full of pets, with a big garden and pool and he made the most amazing Indian food. For three months, I stayed with them and it was paradise. I was so in love, Evin. I was so happy. I started writing songs, and at night, sitting in the living room by the fire or out by the pool, we’d sing them together. Then, we got the call from the clinic.”
He didn’t push me to say it. With a whistle, he called to Matches for another round of brown tequila. He knew what happened. My mom, finally sober but still in therapy at the clinic, had hanged herself with a lamp cable. “In that moment, all I could feel was that it was my fault. Everything changed, like someone had flipped a coin, turned my life from right to wrong. Aunt Cathy came to pick me up and said that she would become my legal guardian and I went home with her that same night, although Uncle Shaggy said I could stay until I was eighteen, or as long as I wanted. I couldn’t even look him in the eye, let alone... I didn’t want their sympathy. I said some horrible things... ”
“People say horrible things when they’re grieving. They probably understood,” he said when I couldn’t go on speaking. “So you never saw them again?”
“No. My aunt enrolled me into a different school near her place and made me go to this weird therapy group. They gave me anti-depressants. I somehow managed to pass my final exams but I really don’t remember anything about that time. Right after school, I moved to London.” The aching in my throat was becoming unbearable. I tried to wash it down with more Guinness.
“And didn’t this boy try to contact you?”
“Yes, he wrote me letters every week. Until, in London, I wrote him a really mean one back.” I was starting to see stars in front of my eyes now. “I was such a bitch. Just like my aunt. Only- worse.”
He wagged a finger at me. “Now what did I tell you about not wallowing in guilt?”
“And anyway, my point was... What was my point? Oh yeah, that ever since I broke up with- him- there have been guys, sure. Plenty of guys.”
He nodded. “But let me guess, never one that made you happy. Because you really think that if you’re happy, someone will die?” He scratched his beard stubble. “Cathy told me there was a bit of Italian and Scottish blood in your family but this is more than a little superstition. It’s downright soup — stoup — well, I’ll be damned. What was I saying?”
“Stoopi-hity,” I finished for him. I was too drunk to say anything else. My chin was sliding down my hands, or the table was rising up to my face, I don’t know which, but just before I blacked out, Evin managed to ask “What was his name? The boy you loved?”
Heavy. Guinn... they call it breakfss in a glass... Nightmare. “Jack.”
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by Tamara Podella