Linger In What We Do
I don’t enjoy his company, brother-in-law or not. He talks about the weather, sip-slurps coffee, eats like a horny carnivore, and continually clears his throat. He’s packed on so much weight, his face palpitates like an imminent explosion. Perhaps he’s the first look of alien life on other planets. I have no idea if, or how, he sees me, although I know neither of us is handsome. Like the friendship between our late wives, we share a history I can’t seem to quit. Age has taught me the art of tolerant indifference. Not only for him, but for humanity in general, including the nineteen-eighties decorated Perkin’s in which we’ve sat in the back booth for a year, eating breakfast every Friday between 9-10am. I give him very little time, and the time I do give runs rampant with equivocation. He asked to meet at 8am today. Odd, like the past few months, watching him scoop little packets of jelly into a Mason jar. I think he’s slipping. Away. Fast.
“Do you feel old?” he asks, scooping grape jelly into the Mason jar. Screws on the lid. Stuffs the jar in a shirt pocket.
“Why are you stealing jelly?”
“I’m not stealing. I’m collecting.”
He looks out the window at the parking lot and runs a tongue around his lips. As chapped as they are, stealing lip balm from Walmart makes a lot more sense. “Wanna hang out and order lunch?” he asks, pushing an empty breakfast plate to the edge of the table.
“Do you have any secrets?” he asks. “Secrets you don’t know what to do with?”
“Sally hated my truck.” He clears his throat. “She always wanted a Sedan. She kept that secret from me for years, didn’t tell me until a month before she died.”
Sally, my sister, and his late wife, a waitress at Perkins, died from heart disease two years ago.
“She wasn’t a happy woman,” he says.
“Neither of us should be driving at our age.”
“She said secrets are a part of life, though, that everyone has them, even if they act like they don’t.” He sighs. “You think that’s true?”
“You feeling okay today?”
“Do you think heaven exists?”
“Not a clue.”
“If God is real, do you think he really does forgive sins?”
“What do you need forgiveness for?”
“It’s a long story to get into, unless you wanna hear about it. Well, do you?”
“Can it be shortened?”
“I’ve shortened it my entire adult life.”
“Did Sally know about it?”
“It was a harder secret for her to keep than it was for me.”
“How long of a secret is it?”
“A forty year secret.”
“That’s a lot of weight to be carrying around.”
He rubs his belly. “Maybe once this secret is out in the open, I can work on slimming down.”
“Does this secret have anything to do with why you’ve been stealing jelly?”
“I’m not stealing it. I’m collecting it.”
“Why don’t you just buy some at the store?”
“Because I like the jelly here.” He sip-slurps coffee. “Sally cried for an entire month after we made the decision. I tried to hold her hand and hug her, but she pushed me away. We never talked about it again. But now that it’s come back to haunt me, I have no idea what to do but to collect jelly with the hope that he might appreciate the gesture, and carry on the tradition.”
“He?” I ask. “What do you mean by he, and what’s come back to haunt you?”
“Ever heard of the website, 23andMe?”
“I don’t do the internet.”
“What’s 23andMe do?”
“It tracks genealogy through saliva. Can you believe that? History through spit.”
“Like you spit on the screen and it tells you stuff about yourself?”
He clears his throat. “No. You spit in a test tube and send it to the company and they analyze it and get back to you with the results.”
“Why’d you do it if you don’t like it?”
“Because the secret was too heavy to carry anymore.”
I check my wristwatch. 10:30am. I have no plans for the rest of the day, but he doesn’t know this. “I have a few minutes to spare if you want to tell me.” I’m too nice. No I’m not, not to him. Not really.
“I was hoping the saliva wouldn’t produce any positive results. I figured there was no chance in hell it was possible. But then I got an email six weeks later and my heart just about dropped out of my chest at the news. I couldn’t believe it, what I was I reading. Not after all these years. Not after Sally was dead and I was left alone.”
He stares out the window for a very long time, biting his lower lip and wiping with a napkin tears streaming down his cheeks. The waitress tops off the coffee cups and sets a few more napkins on the table. The place is empting out, tempting me to join the walker and wheelchair migration to Sedans, the Metro Mobility van, and a few pickup trucks. But I can’t leave, not yet, fueled to run idle across from this peculiar man’s misty eyes, slumped posture, and shaky-hands. “If you wanna order lunch, I guess we can.”
He looks directly into my eyes. “If I tell you a secret, will you promise to not judge me or hate your sister?”
I know it’d be dismissive to bring up the weather, but now that’s all I want to talk about. “I can try.” Can I?
He pulls out the Mason jar. “His name’s Mason. He’ll be forty-one in August. He lives in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio and works at Smuckers in Orville, Ohio.”
Kathi, my wife, also a waitress at Perkins, died from cervical cancer a year ago. She and Sally were best friends. She often said Sally (and my brother-in-law) had some pretty severe demons, but being an agnostic, and apathetic towards extended family members, I laughed it off and gave it no further thought. Demons is a strong word. Perhaps, in retrospect, I should have taken it more seriously.
“Is this Mason guy related to that 23andMe thing?”
“He wants to meet me, wants to come visit, wants to bring his wife and baby boy and spend time getting acquainted.” He removes his eyeglasses, tears bumping into each other on the way to his chin. “How can he want to meet me after we gave him away to people we didn’t even know?”
I’m rarely speechless, but sometimes refraining from using words is the right choice.
“I don’t know what to do.” He sniffles. “What do you think I should do?”
We sit quiet for a very long time.
“Do you want to meet him?” I ask. What’s his name again? “Mason, is it?”
“He sent me a picture through email. He looks so much like his mother, same eyes and nose, I don’t know if I can sit with him in the same room without losing it. He reminds me so much of her and knowing that he’ll never get to meet her in person breaks my heart.” He pauses, inhales, closes his eyes, and blows it all out with sputtering lips. We sit quiet for a short time. “Does that make me sound selfish?” he says, opening his eyes. “I’ve been selfish with him for so long and now that I have the chance to not be selfish, selfish is all I wanna be.” He inhales. And exhales. “Does that make me a bad person, a bad soul, a bad father?”
Father. He’s a father. This old man. This jelly stealer/collector. This uninteresting and dense weirdo I’ve disliked for as long as I’ve known him. Kathi and I wanted children but couldn’t. He and Sally knew this, and never once asked how it had adversely affected us. Now he wants advice about a son he and Sally had, have, and gave away.
“Why didn’t you keep him?”
“We weren’t married and the Catholic Church in the late sixties said it was the right choice for all of us. Sally agreed, so I agreed, and that was that.”
“Did you contact him or did he contact you?”
“Oddly enough, we were both looking for each other without even knowing it. His parents told him when he was a boy that they weren’t his biological parents, which knowing now that they’re a black couple, I guess they really didn’t have a choice.”
“When does he wanna come here?”
“He’s on his way as we speak. Supposed to arrive around 4 or 5 pm. Gonna stay at the Holiday Inn across town, wants to go see the Brewers play on Thursday afternoon. He acts like we know each other, like we go to ball games all the time. He sounds so happy on the phone. Like we’re friends. Like we’ve always been father and son. Like he can’t wait to hang out and drink beer and clap at homeruns. I mean, shouldn’t he be angry with me and want to punish me for what I did?”
“Maybe that’s not how he’s made.”
“That’s just it. I don’t know how he’s made. I mean, I know how we made him, but I don’t know anything more about him even though he acts like I do, like we’ve known each other our whole lives. I mean, how can he not hate me, and only want bad things for me. But that doesn’t seem to be who he is. It scares me, and I’m not easily scared.”
We sit quiet for a short time.
“I haven’t told him yet that his mother’s dead. Maybe it’s for the best, though, that she isn’t alive. Maybe this’d kill her.”
“Maybe it is for the best.”
“Do you really think that?”
“What’s up with the Mason jar and the jelly?”
“Thought I could give it to him as a way to show him them that I know, and care, that his name’s Mason, and the he works with jelly at Smuckers, thought maybe I could a start a tradition with him and his baby boy, each of us adding a little jelly to it over the years and pass it back and forth while his boy grows up and then maybe when he’s older he’ll keep the tradition going by doing the same thing with his own boy. Or girl. Doesn’t matter to me. I don’t know, maybe it’s a silly idea, but at this point, I gotta do something.”
“It’s not silly.” I stand “And who knows, maybe he’ll love it. And you.”
“Do you wanna meet him, all of them, if there’s time?” He stands and follow me outside.
“Not this time.”
“Do you think I can do this? I mean, me being a father to a son?”
“I think you’ve been given a chance at redemption most people never get.”
“My biggest fear is that I’ll fail him again. Like I did his mother.”
“Then keep him around this time, and do everything you can to let him know that you want him around.”
“What if he doesn’t like what he sees?”
“Give him the Mason jar and tell him we’re all mixed up in our own way, but that being mixed up is different than being messed up.” I drive away, watching him through the rearview mirror spit-shine his truck and swirl the Mason jar. Later in the evening, almost asleep, dreaming of touching the softness of Kathi’s face, I can hear her gravel voice whisper, “I’m sorry we can’t get pregnant,” hands rubbing a belly that will never bulge.
Samuel E. Cole lives in Woodbury, MN, where he finds work in special event/development management. He’s a poet, flash fiction geek, and political essayist enthusiast. His work has appeared in many literary journals, and his first poetry collection, Bereft and the Same-Sex Heart, was published in October 2016 by Pski’s Porch Publishing. His second book, Bloodwork, a collection of short stories, was published by Pski’s Porch Publishing in July 2017. His third book,Siren Stitches, a collection of short stories, was published by Three Waters Publishing in October 2017. A second poetry collection, Dollhouse Masquerade, will be published by Truth Serum Press in May 2018. He is also an award winning card maker and scrapbooker.