Updated: Dec 14, 2020
It was like ninety degrees and humid that day Jack arrived, and air conditioning wasn’t in our new budget. But I figured the old guy needed a good meal, so I heated up some of Mom’s homemade stew in the microwave while they talked.
“We’ll feed you, then I’ll give you a ride to a truck stop myself,” Mom said.
“That’ll be fine, Baby Girl. I told those people at the hospital you wouldn’t want me around, but they felt better thinking they were sending me to family.” He sat down at the table.
Mom didn’t sit. She was busy looking for a truck stop on her phone.
“Thanks,” he said when I put a bowl of stew in front of him with a plate of crackers. “I should have gone to Arizona in the first place. Last I knew, Jimmy Parks was still kicking. He’ll let me sleep on his couch. You go through war together, there’s a bond.”
“You’re still pretending to be a Vietnam vet?” Mom was using her stern voice, the one teachers use to bring rowdy teenage boys into line.
“It was never pretending. You can call the hospital if you don’t believe me. They wouldn’t treat me if I wasn’t a vet.” His lower jaw came forward under his tight lips, just like Mom’s when she’s mad.
“You have the number?” she asked, calling what she thought was a bluff.
He handed her a card and went back to eating the stew.
“They won’t tell me anything,” she said.
“Yeah they will. I signed off for you. Figured if I croaked, they’d track you down and you might want to know what happened.” He winked at me.
Mom glared at him. “Decades of drug abuse will do a lot of damage.”
“I haven’t used anything except pot since 1985.” He looked straight at her. “Haven’t even had a beer since then.”
“Because I left?”
“No. I had Hodgkin’s. Figured my body had enough poisons in it without my adding any more.”
“Hodgkin’s?” I asked. “Isn’t that like cancer?”
He nodded. “It’s a lymphoma, hits the whole system. A gift from Uncle Sam and Agent Orange. I beat it, but the chemo and radiation they used back then were pretty destructive themselves. When I had those chest pains, they figured it was heart disease from all that, but my heart checked out fine. It was just a spasm in the artery, but they said if it happened again and cut off blood flow to the heart too long, that would cause damage. So I carry the nitro.”
“You’re serious, aren’t you?” asked Mom. He’d finally given her the full explanation she’d wanted.
He looked at her standing there with the card in her hand. “Use that cell phone of yours.”
She went out to the back yard to make the call.
“Are you dying?” I asked. I knew it wasn’t polite, but somehow he invited that kind of directness.
“No, I got a clean bill of health before they put me on that bus. But I need to take care of myself and keep watch for other cancers.”
“So why’d they think you needed to be with family, if you’re healthy?”
“Because I’m old, and the home I’d made for myself got taken away from me. That left me pretty depressed at first. Especially being all alone.” He looked out the window at Mom on the phone and sighed.
“Why’d the landlord kick you out?” I asked.
“Damned greedy guy’s making it a grow house.”
My jaw dropped. I’d caught Weeds a few times at Mary’s house. Her parents didn’t pay any attention to what she watched. But that was fiction. We didn’t know any people like that.
“He was going to grow pot there?” I whispered.
“Yeah,” said Jack. “They went and made medical marijuana legal in California, but it’s still illegal to feds. So growers are taking it indoors, out of sight, doing intensive hydroponics. I’m not the only one who got kicked out.”
Back then, marijuana was still illegal most places, including where we lived. I checked out the window. Mom was still on the phone, looking majorly stressed. I was glad she couldn’t hear us. I still whispered when I asked, “You smoke pot?”
“Yup. Have my medical card for back problems. But really it’s to help me deal with stress.” He looked out at Mom. “I could use some now. You know where to get any?”
“No.” I couldn’t believe he’d asked.
“Your mother brought you up to walk the straight and narrow, eh?”
“I guess. Well, she’s a teacher. Her contract says she has to reflect well on the school at all times.” How many times had I heard that? “She won’t even wear cutoffs unless we’re camping.”
“Seriously?” He laughed. “Good Lord.”
“So she wasn’t always like this?”
“Like what?” Mom asked from the doorway.
“Uptight, Baby Girl. You won’t wear cutoffs even at home? Probably don’t skinny dip anymore, either.”
“No, I don’t.” The cell phone was still in her hand. She put it back into her pocket.
“So,” she said, “they say you could go into the veterans’ home, but there’s a waiting list.”
“It’s bad enough having to go to a vet hospital. I was drafted. I’m not going to go live with a bunch of regular army types. I’ll sleep under a bridge first.”
“They said you get disability.”
“Yeah, but it’s not enough to live on.”
“Well, you can stay here a few days until we figure out an alternative.”
“Why thank you, Baby Girl.”
He went to hug her and she dodged it again.
“Just a few days,” she warned.
“Sure. I’ll get. . .” He turned to me. “What’s your name again?”
“Nina,” he repeated. “I’ll get Nina to help me find a bridge for the summer. Then I’ll head to Arizona in September; see if I can find Jimmy Parks.”
Mom rolled her eyes over to me. “Nina, help him get settled in the den. I’ll finish unloading the car.”
She didn’t mean to let him stay more than a few days, but at some level she must have known it was inevitable.
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