My Son John
What’d she say, Johnny?”
“She said yes, Ma.”
I listened from the bedroom me an’ Michael shared. He sat on his bed pickin’ his toenails pretendin’ not to listen. Then Aunt Bess said how it was sure a relief an’ a good thing. And that’s when I quit listenin’. I didn’t wanna hear any more. I walked to the window and stared out at the black sky, tried to find the big dipper, or the little one or Jupiter, but for the overcast it was all I could do to find the moon. It was a cold July sky.
It wasn’t that I missed my ma so much. I didn’t really. I liked bein’ with Pa. But as far as I was concerned, I only had two friends in the world: Granpa and Uncle Jud.
Nancy Bowles only half listened to the old Beatles album. It was the one her older brother Paul had willed to her in a note before he left for Vietnam. She played it to feel close to him, but it wasn’t working.
Her mind began drawing pictures again. She closed her eyes, opened them—”Strawberry Fields Forever.” Paul lived there, stamped to the inside of her eyelids; a poster on her ceiling if she opened them.
Nancy turned her head to look at the eight by ten photograph of her brother where it stood looking at her from her dresser. “I’ll never stop loving you, Paul,” she whispered.
She decided to call her best friend to tell her first. “Laura, you’ll never guess who just called me,” Nancy cried excitedly causing her friend to pull her ear from the receiver.
“Come on, I’m serious,” Nancy insisted.
“Would I be thrilled if Rudy called?”
“Geez, Nance, I don’t know. Who called?”
“Yeah, can you believe it after all this time?”
“No. Who’s John Haney?”
“Don’t you remember? The two fly boys you picked up on their way to town from Lowry. I almost killed you for stopping to pick them up.”
“You mean that old guy with that far out creep from Texas?”
“He’s thirty years old, Laura. That’s not exactly old.”
“It is if you’re only nineteen.”
“You said he was sexy then. I don’t remember old.”
“Okay, so the guy called—he back at Lowry?”
“No he’s out—home in Vermont—asked me to marry him.”
It took Laura a moment to digest that last part. “What? You’re joking! What did you say?”
“I said yes, Laura.”
“Are you crazy? Just like that, you said yes? You don’t even know the guy. You haven’t even heard from him in what—six months? What’s this—on the rebound on account of Rudy?”
“Rudy can go stick it in his ear for all I care.”
“That’s not where he’s doing it dear.”
“I don’t care where. Honestly, Laura, I need something with substance to hang on to. . .” Her voice trailed off for a moment. “You can’t imagine how I’ve been. Tomorrow will be exactly the same as today. One long monotonous day after another until I meet a new Rudy to pretend I feel something more than loneliness for. The same nothing cycle over and over; it’s so damn depressing. I felt like getting off the world until a few minutes ago. Now all I can think is I must have dreamt the whole thing and I’ll wake up in a minute. Are you really on the other end?”
“Yeah, I am. Nancy. I don’t know what to say to you. You just can’t do it. You don’t screw up your whole life… I mean take off to some place thousands of miles from home to marry some old guy you went out with a few times. And don’t tell me it isn’t because of Rudy. Come on, Nancy, this will hurt us all so bad—your folks, yourself and don’t forget me. Don’t I count for anything?”
“Oh, Laura, of course you do but you just can’t know how I feel. I really can’t stand living in this house, this city. I can’t stand it and I don’t know how to tell you why. It’s just so damn depressing. Please understand this is my way out. I prayed and prayed for something, anything. This is it. A new beginning—new life, new name, new world. I have a chance to be born all over again. Honestly, I almost emptied a bottle of tranks down my stupid throat last night.”
“So congratulations, for crying out loud,” Laura said. “I wish you could see what the hell you’re doing. From the trank escape to this. Can’t you see it isn’t any different? Come on, Nance, aren’t I supposed to care?” Laura was crying.
“Yes, you’re supposed to tell me I’m stark raving mad so I can rant and rave in my defense and I don’t know why anymore than I know why I said yes. And it doesn’t really have anything to do with Rudy.”
“Yeah, uh-huh, Well, I think you should up and marry this old guy and live in Vermont just like that. That’ll show Rudy you don’t give a damn. Boy, that’ll hurt him.”
“You just don’t understand, Laura—” Nancy’s voice trailed off, defeated.
“So when’s the happy occasion?”
“In two weeks if I can make it out there by then. I’ll give Public Service two weeks notice and then take my vacation in a week. You still want to buy my car?”
“You’re really going to do it,” Laura asked. “I just can’t believe it. What excuse did he give you for loosing himself for six months and then popping the question from out of nowhere?”
“He needs a wife to get custody of his son. He’s been fighting for him for six months. I guess the mother was running around, leaving the son on his own and he got in some bad trouble. That’s why Johnny didn’t re-up. He went home to try to make a home for his son. The boy was awarded to his grandparents but they’re old and not up to rearing another kid. The court won’t award the boy to John until he can prove he’ll provide a permanent home for the child.”
“Wow,” Laura said in a subdued voice. “Yeah, I still want your car. He wasn’t corny enough to say he’s in love with you or anything?”
“No. He said I was the nicest woman he’s ever known except for his mother and she turned him down.” Nancy had smiled at that and she was smiling again.
“I’m sure gonna’ miss you.” Laura was really crying now.
“Me too, Laura. We’ll write a lot and visit on vacations. I’ll fix you up with some real sexy farmer.”
“Ugh! Forget it. Are you going to live on a farm?”
“No. John’s working at a lumber mill.”
“Hey, how old’s his kid? That won’t be easy. I mean the kid might think you’re going to try to take his mother’s place.” A chuckle between sobs and Laura blew her nose before Nancy could answer.
“I’m not sure. I think thirteen.” Nancy crossed and uncrossed her ankles. Her bare feet were getting cold.
“Nancy,” Laura’s voice was sad and austerely sincere. “Lot’s a luck.”
“Thanks, Laura. I better go to break the news to my folks. They won’t know whether to jump for joy at getting rid of my moping face or be sad at losing their chief maid and cook.”
“Oh, come on, Nancy. That’s not fair and you don’t mean it.”
“I know, I know. They love me—just have weird ideas of how to show it. I mean I’m not even allowed to fall apart, for Christ sake, without picking up their pieces first. They beat me to everything and all my little brother does is throw up his arms screaming something about leaving this madhouse which is his way of falling apart. So after I calm my folks down I wind up banging at Jimmy’s bedroom door where he’s gone to sulk because I know I’ve worried him. When everyone is smiling bravely again, I go to my room and cry alone because it’s easier that way.”
Laura was crying again. Nancy thought, you too, but said she really wasn’t unhappy just spouting off a little over-dramatically. Laura agreed. They said goodbye finally leaving Nancy staring, very much alone, at her white ceiling. She remembered one night months earlier, sitting next to John Haney in her car. They’d been out dancing and she was bringing him back to the Air Force Base. She was between break ups with Rudy and suddenly she was crying because she knew John Haney was not a Rudy, because Rudy had taken her virginity from her on their first date, because John Haney was the nicest, most honest person in her life, because he made her think of her brother Paul. She was crying because she wasn’t in love with him and between her tears she told him her thoughts. She stopped outside the gate and looked at the man beside her.
“I think you don’t understand love, Nancy. You think hurting is loving. You don’t know it can be feeling good about someone.” She particularly remembered he was smiling and patted her hand. She felt good about John Haney.
Nancy got up to brave the scene with her folks. She left the “Octopus’s Garden” playing on her stereo, not wanting to spend her sudden burst of courage turning it off. They were absorbed in the tube. It was spouting the merits of some detergent when she entered the living room. She sat without a word, in an unoccupied easy chair. The commercial ended leaving the air clear for the show in progress, or seemingly in progress. Of course it had been taped some months earlier, a taped illusion like the commercial selling dreams instead of detergent.
“Hi, honey, you look happy. Was that Rudy on the phone?” Mrs. Bowles questioned her daughter. She was on a fishing trip. She was always on a fishing trip, Nancy thought.
“No, Mom, it was John Haney. You know, the fly boy that all but lived here last winter?” Mrs. Bowles stared without expression. “Mother!”
“I remember,” she said.
Nancy closed her eyes and leaned her head against the chair. Her father had turned at the name John Haney and Jimmy gave a sideways glance. Both men’s attention retreated back to the program as suddenly as they had left it. Nancy sighed relief.
“What did he want?” Mrs. Bowles was a patient fisherman. She could sit back for hours on end, confident of getting a bite. All comes to those who wait, she’d said more times than Nancy had the patience to remember.
“He asked me to marry him.” Nancy tried not to smile but when the three faces turned in unison to witness her existence in varied expressions of dumbfounded awe it was impossible for her not to let go of a giggle. Her family didn’t share her humor and only waited for her to admit she was joking. “It’s true. He really did,” she insisted.
“Well…?” Mr. Bowles was not a patient man. He was missing one of his favorite shows. “Nancy, can’t this wait until after The Walton’s?”
“I thought he went back to Vermont,” Mrs. Bowles remarked conversationally.
“Will you let her talk,” Mr. Bowles growled at his wife.
“He’s got a kid as old as me, doesn’t he?” Jimmy asked.
Mr. Bowles threw his hands up in the air. “Will everyone let the girl talk!”
Quiet. Nancy grinned at her father. She tried to suppress it but couldn’t.
“Look girl, if this is some kind of a joke get to the punch line.” Mr. Bowles said.
“It’s not a joke, Dad, but can wait ’til after your show. I’m sorry.” She really was and fought to keep her lips from curling upward.
“What did you tell the man, Nancy?” Mr. Bowles cheek twitched; he cracked his knuckles. Mrs. lit a cigarette.
“I said yes. He’s working in Vermont,” she rushed on to say, “and I’m to go out there next week. I guess I’ll fly. Laura said she’ll buy my car and I’ll use that money for a ticket.” She spoke quickly running the sentences together to get everything out before she was interrupted.
Mr. Bowles put his hand over his eyes. Migraine, Nancy thought. He left the room to make his way to the bathroom. Nancy followed him. He reached for the door of the medicine cabinet. His hands shook as he searched through the bottles lined on the shelves, finally resting on the Valium. He took two, dry, returned the plastic container and resumed his search until he found the Darvon. He filled the water glass and took the pill, swallowed it and closed the cabinet door along with his eyes and sat on the toilet stool. Ten minutes passed before he stood up.