Chapter 15: Jake and His Family
“When’s the last time you spoke with Missy?” asked Charlotte.
Missy is our mother, Harriet Smalley. Charlotte stopped calling her “Mom” when she was eighteen. Mom is in a nursing home in Bristol, and she’s been there since a life-threatening bout of pneumonia put her in the emergency room. Her overall health was failing, due more to her severe obesity than to any particular ailment. In spite of her age and appearance she still insisted on being called “Missy,” which even to me as a kid seemed like a little girl’s name. Any conversation with her inevitably became a conversation about how she was not being treated with the respect she thought she deserved or how either I, Charlotte, or our dad had embarrassed or failed her. When she was first placed there, I tried to visit her a couple of times a week. That eventually dwindled down to one visit a month and one phone call a week on Sunday afternoons. Any more than that made me want to pull my hair out.
Before I could answer, she added, “I know, Sunday afternoon, right?”
“Why?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I was just wondering why you had so much time to give to Atreyu, but for our mother, all you’ve got is one sterile phone call on Sunday afternoon.”
“Do we have to do this again, Char?”
“Why? Does it make you uncomfortable?”
“I’m just tired of this conversation.”
“I don’t blame you. I’d be tired of it, too.” She poked me in the chest. “You know how to stop it, too, don’t you?”
“What do you want from me?”
“You know what I want. I want the same thing that your daughter wants. I want the same thing that your wife wanted.”
I could feel my face turning red and the knot between my shoulder blades tightening. “Do we have to go there?”
“We all just want a real relationship with you.”
“We have relationships, Charlotte.”
“Yeah, but you’re not in it, Jake.” She gently squeezed my left forearm, “You have to let go of the past.”
She squeezed a little tighter as I squirmed. Waiting until I was looking straight at her, she said, “I’m sorry.”
“I know. You’ve told me that before. It’s not a big deal.”
“It was a big deal, Jake. It was a very big deal. You were a kid, and I left you alone with her.”
“She’s my mother. What were you supposed to do?”
“I’m not blaming me. I did what I had to do. But it hurt you, and you can’t get past it if you don’t admit it happened.”
“It happened, okay? It happened. I do not deny it.”
She shook her head and scowled at me.
“It didn’t just happen, like a current event. It happened to you. And it mattered to you in ways you aren’t admitting.” She moved closer to me as she spoke.
I could feel myself shuffle and lean back from her. “It wasn’t so bad, Char. It really wasn’t.”
Charlotte inched back slightly. “Look, I’ve made my peace with her, but I know how bad it could be. I was with her for ten years before you came along.”
“Were you abused?” I asked. “Neglected?”
She rolled her eyes. “Give me a break. Are you saying that a broken finger doesn’t hurt because it’s not a broken arm?”
“No, but I am saying it was a broken finger and not a broken arm.”
“Are you deliberately trying to be thick? That was my metaphor, and you know darn well what it was supposed to represent.”
“It was a good metaphor,” I said. “And it was just a broken finger.”
“I grew up with her, Jake. I know what it’s like to come home to her with something to talk about. I know what happens to a kid when everything’s competition.”
“That was a long time ago, and I don’t even know what that means.”
“I know what it does to a kid when every time you tell your mother something, she maneuvers it to be about her.”
“Every time?” I repeated.
Ignoring that, she pressed on, “At some point, you just give up. Why bother? Your thoughts don’t matter. Your feelings don’t matter. The only thing that matters is her feelings. So you box it all up.”
“And that’s what you did?”
Putting her hand on my chest, she said, “That’s what you’re still doing.”
I looked down at her hand on my chest and then back up to her. “Are you in counseling again?” I asked.
Shaking her head and stepping back she said, “Does saying that make it easier for you?”
“Does analyzing me make it easier for you?”
“You can be a real hard case, you know that?” she fumed.
“So I’ve been told.”
“Well, it’s true, and it’ll probably give you an ulcer.”
She frowned. “I’m going to hire Bree,” she said.
When Bree and I began dating in high school, Charlotte wasn’t much of a presence in my life. I was eight when our folks divorced. I was put with our mom, but Charlotte was eighteen and could do what she wanted, so she stayed with Dad until she finished high school and then she joined the Navy. It was Bree who got Charlotte and me back together when she came back to town eight years later. Charlotte learned bookkeeping in the service and then got her associate degree in business. When she returned, she landed a job at an insurance agency where Bree had an after-school job.
If it hadn’t been for Charlotte’s engagement to Drew Mayfield, her high school boyfriend, she’d never have returned to town. Shortly after Charlotte enlisted, Dad disappeared. She blamed our mom and me, and I can’t blame Charlotte for that. Dad was weak. As I’ve thought about those days, I came to believe that our mom married him because she could control him, but then she resented him for it. She’d pick at him until he’d lash out. That was their pattern: him trying to please her, it never being good enough, her picking on him, and finally, him going off to get drunk.
Our father’s name was David, but everyone called him Cal. When he and our mom got together, he was the owner of a small trucking company with three drivers. They mostly moved coal. I didn’t know it at the time, but he gradually went further and further into debt as he tried to please our mom. By the time they divorced, his career had gone from owner operator to part-time driver. As his career went, so did his drinking.
As the drinking got worse, Mom started going to a woman’s shelter for counseling. The woman whom Mom was seeing told her that she was being abused. She believed everything Mom told her, and Mom got a lot of attention for telling. The woman she was talking to told her to bring her kids in so that she could tell if we were being abused, too. Mom sat in on that interview. Mom did most of the talking and answering. I didn’t know what was happening, so I kept quiet, but Charlotte got to speak her mind.
At first, Charlotte seemed to cooperate. The questions were aimed at how much food we had and if we had breakfast in the morning and vegetables at night, but when they began to make our dad look like he abused us, Charlotte objected. The counselor said Charlotte was defensive, and that meant it was true. Charlotte called it a witch-hunt and refused to go back. So they decided it was up to me to testify. They convinced me that my father had serious problems he wasn’t willing to deal with and that they were doing what was necessary to get him the help he needed. I believed them and said what they wanted me to say in court. That was the end of my family.
That was also the end of my relationship with my father. He stayed in town for a while after that, but when Charlotte left town he did, too. I haven’t seen or heard from him since. And it would have been the end of my relationship with Charlotte, too, if it hadn’t been for Bree. Bree did filing and other odd jobs around the insurance company where Charlotte was the assistant office manager. Charlotte was Bree’s supervisor. It didn’t take them long to discover who they had in common. And it didn’t take Bree long to get from Charlotte the story of my childhood that she couldn’t get from me. It was Bree who convinced Charlotte that I was just a vulnerable kid who didn’t know what he was doing. Bree convinced Charlotte to forgive me.
And I believe Charlotte really did forgive me. But I doubt my father has forgiven me. And if he hasn’t forgiven me, I don’t blame him. I haven’t forgiven me either.
“When does she start?” I asked.
“Bree. You said you were hiring Bree,” I said. “When does she start?”
“Where did you just go, Jake?” asked Charlotte.
“What do you mean? You said you were hiring Bree and I asked when.”
“That’s the sequence all right, but you got the timing all wrong. I said I’m hiring Bree and you left the room. When you came back, you asked, ‘When?’ Now I want to know where you went.”
“He went to the place that never ends,” said Atreyu.
I don’t know how long Atreyu was standing next to us or how much he had heard, but neither Charlotte nor I was startled to find him there.
Charlotte looked at him and nodded as she said, “He sure did, didn’t he?” Looking at me, she added, “He went to the place that never ends.”
“Everything ends,” I said, “everything.”
“Not infinity,” said Atreyu immediately.
Charlotte raised her eyebrow and with her eyes challenged me to respond.
“No, not infinity,” I conceded.
“Who is Bree?” he asked.
“Bree is his ex-wife,” Charlotte told him.
Atreyu reached out and tapped me on the side of the head three times. “She is in here.”
“She is,” agreed Charlotte.
“My father is in here,” said Atreyu, tapping the side of his own head.
“That’s right,” said Charlotte. To me, she added, “You should listen to him.”
“Are you sad?” asked Atreyu.
“Sadder than he knows,” answered Charlotte.
“Since you two don’t need me for this conversation I think I’ll just load up that wardrobe and head out.”
“Atreyu,” said Charlotte. “Will you help my brother?”
I glared at her in an attempt to cut her off, but she wasn’t paying attention to me. I thought I was off the hook because Atreyu wasn’t responding to her question.
Charlotte tried again. “Would you help the Preacher with the wardrobe, please, Atreyu?”
“Your brother is the Preacher!”
“Yes,” she snickered. Turning to me with wide eyes she said, “That got me to a new level of respect.”
As Atreyu went to the storeroom for the furniture dolly, Charlotte puffed her chest up, bragging, “I’m the Preacher’s sister.”