“Did you hear me, Jack?” I asked loudly.
“I’m not deaf, Ed,” Jack yelled, though I suspected he was referring to my question, not to the news I had shared just before that. I smiled and nodded. I could have apologized, but he wouldn’t have heard me.
If you believed Jack (I hadn’t made up my mind yet), he actually heard everything perfectly well, but all at the same volume, so if you talked to him while a record spun on the turntable and bacon fried on the stove, the three sounds muscled for equal prominence in his ears, or deeper in, where such things get sorted out. At equal volume they were a blur of sound, three TV shows playing at the same time, easier to ignore than decipher. It was as if the entire world was typing in all caps, and he had tired of trying to figure out which of it was really important. Jack was 82, and his threshold for “important” was much higher than most.
At 42, I was already getting a sense of what that feeling was like. We express ourselves urgently, we elevate our conversations as essential, but if you wrote down on a pile of legal pads all the chatter that assaults us each day, how many pages would you save to reread? Think of our email inboxes: this message starred and saved to read later, that message marked “unread” because it’s too precious to let slip through our grip, and soon there are 300 so-called important messages stretching back years – yet we never scroll back beyond last week, or even yesterday. How long will those links and letters languish there before we admit to the ruse and relieve ourselves of their burden?
I was foolish to try to say something in the car anyway. The rattles in Jack’s old Falcon began at the license plate frame on the once-chrome bumper, made their way through every aged part of the suspension, visited the parking meter change stashed in the ash tray, and only stopped somewhere near the spare tire laying loose in the trunk. If you believed Jack about his hearing, it must have sounded like a class of kindergarten kids having recess in a pots-and-pans factory, a dissonant symphony that had no volume knob. I should have known better than to add my voice to the din.
The news was simple, and a simple declarative statement would probably have worked fine: “Jack, Fran and I are moving.” But over the 14 years of us living in that house, Jack had come to rely on us. Fran tended his garden, I mowed his lawn; Fran brought plates of muffins wrapped in wax paper, I kept the bolts tight on his kitchen chairs. All small things, but easier for us than for an 80-year old. I felt a bit like we were leaving him in the lurch, and I suppose I wanted to apologize for that. That was the crux of the news.
But news – even good news – isn’t just about us. There’s a ripple effect, and I’m not good at estimating how big that ripple will be. Like when I was offered that Hallmark job in Lawrence. It was my fifth time applying so I think Fran forgot I was even applying with them. I got the offer in my email and left early from work to surprise her with the news. Surprised, it turned out, was an understatement. Instead of congratulations and a smile, I got one steeply-angled eyebrow and a fierce, “Kansas?! I’m supposed to be excited to move to Lawrence fuckin’ Kansas so you can write fuckin’ get well cards? No.” That’s why I was looking for something other than a simple, declarative sentence. I rehearsed different ways of saying it as we drove through the din of tires on asphalt and squeaking seat springs.
“You hungry?” Jack asked, and I nodded. We were on that grim part of I-5, south of Centralia, nothing but country music on the radio and freeway exits that grew like strip-mall mold on the interstate – Home Depots and Starbucks and Subway sandwich shops – but I knew he was heading straight for the golden arches. I hardly ever ate there anymore because public television keeps my wife informed about the unappetizing origins of the “beef,” as she calls it with air quotes. But Jack is 82 and he eats like he’s got nothing to lose. “Something’s going to take me down,” he once said. “If it’s a Big Mac, so be it.” I never argued, because honestly, I love that shit, and I Jack gave me a reason to indulge. My nod to my health was that I never up-sized the meal. That’s how I justified it to Fran, if I even brought it up at all.
The drive-thru line was long but inside wasn’t crowded. I set our tray of food on a table by the window and slid into the plastic booth, noting the ambient restaurant noise: the hiss of the deep fryer, the intermittent rumble of the shake machine, the various beeps and boops announcing the food was at an FDA-approved serving temperature. Two kids were chirping in Spanish by the ketchup dispenser while their mom sat at a distant table talking on her flip phone. Quiet enough for conversation, I hoped.
We ate without talking through half the burgers. After the woman herded her ketchup-stained kids out the door, I finally said, “Jack, back to what I told you in the car. I wanted to let you know, Fran and I are moving.”
“You said Albuquerque.” Which I had. Maybe he did hear everything just fine.
“Yes, Albuquerque. I got a job writing for a catalog company, and Fran’s family lives in Phoenix, so…”
“It’s hot as hell there, Ed. Might even be hell. Or maybe it’s just a franchise. I was there for a weekend once. That was plenty of Albuquerque for me.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard about the heat, but Fran knows the area, and she assures me I’ll be fine.” Jack was staring out to the parking lot, so I kept talking. “I’m sorry we won’t be around to help out anymore. You know, with the lawn and stuff.”
“Okay Timmy Pearson,” Jack replied before taking another bite of his Big Mac. Timmy Pearson – the name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place it.
“I don’t think I know who Timmy Pearson is, Jack.”
“The guy who owned your house before you.” Ahhh, that was is. Timothy Earl Pearson Jr., written across the bottom of so many closing documents 14 years earlier.
“Did Timmy Pearson move to Albuquerque?”
“I don’t know where he went. Actually, it was Denver, but it doesn’t matter. He lived in that house before you.”
“Yeah, I remember now. I just couldn’t place the name. What does Timmy Pearson have to do with this?”
“Timmy gave me the same break-up speech, acting like he was leaving me to the vultures. Yet it seems I got by just fine, doesn’t it?” He was looking across the table, sliding fries, one-by-one, past his gray stubble.
“I didn’t mean any disrespect, Jack. I know you can look out for yourself, I was only saying…”
“Fercrissakes, Ed, lighten up. You’re moving, not dying.”
I forced a weak chuckle. “I guess I’m just feeling like Timmy Pearson about it all.”
“Look, Ed. I’ll be fine. I appreciate all you and Fran do for me, but I’ll be fine. I got a niece down in Salem who can help out, and I got whoever buys your house, which is just what I told Timmy Pearson. I’m not your problem, Ed – Albuquerque is your problem. I’ve seen you on your patio in the summer, chasing the shade like a lost puppy. I wish you the best, but I think you’re going to wilt down there. ”
“Well I can’t say that hasn’t occurred to me. Summer here is a season, not a permanent condition. But Fran says I’ll be fine.”
“Then let’s hope Fran is right. She usually is, near as I can tell.”
I smiled, wondering if he meant something more by that, but I let it go. “I’ll miss these Mickey D’s trips, Jack. This might be my last Big Mac for awhile.”
“Let me know when you’re back in town, we’ll get my new neighbor to take us out for one.”
I took the last bite of my burger as Jack closed the corrugated lid on his own and said, “Shit, we better get out of here. That kid in the compact looks like he’s sizing up my car. I hate when I have to break some punk’s heart, but he’s mistaken if he thinks I’m selling that Falcon.”
As we crossed the parking lot I saw the kid he was talking about, about high school age and already imagining the Falcon in a sexy coat of paint, already picking out the stereo that would replace Jack’s old AM radio. As he watched Jack’s gray hair disappear into the car, his face lit up a little – how long would this old man be driving that car, anyway? I gave the kid a smile as I came around the passenger side, and didn’t say what I wanted to say: “If you don’t believe me, kid, then take it from Timmy Pearson: You’re making an error in your math.”
(c) 2014 William Reagan
“Over the River” will appear in the forthcoming Along for the Ride, a collection of imagined stories about random cars and their drivers.