by N. Joy Lutton
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
But he had promised, and that promise and the impending trip choked Jake’s thoughts as he continued pouring drinks at the bar he tended. On his break, he called his mother, but she was too sick to talk. He promised his father he would book a flight as soon as the tourist season ended, when he would be able to get off bartending for a few days without ruffling the manager’s feathers too much. By the end of the month or maybe the beginning of the next one.
His father, who heard the wavering in his son’s voice, said nothing but, “Your mom will be happy to see you, boy.”
The days in Vegas were one endless weekend, as waves of tourists ebbed and flowed into the hotel bar. Only the messages from his father were any indication that time was passing. Jake’s days were spent with refilling the glasses of vacation gamers who had squirreled away a reasonable amount of cash to lose in Las Vegas — “What happens in Vegas,” after all) — and more tragically the locals, gambling addicts whose souls had been wagered long ago. Shells of the people they once were; bodies barely broken but behind their eyes was nothing.
Mrs. Riley had been coming to the bar for as long as Jake could remember and, apart from the casino attached to the bar, she seemingly had no other place to go. No real reason for being here. She had to be at least fifty or sixty, about the same age as Mom, he thought.
Even though her finger was bandless, she would only respond to Mrs. Riley. Lou, the bar’s manager, said her husband had brought her to Vegas on a vacation years ago; he left at the end of the week while Mrs. Riley was sitting on a slot machine stool. It was one of those Las Vegas urban legends no one could confirm or debunk.
As Jake continued to refill her Georgia Peach, he couldn’t help but wonder why Mrs. Riley continued to wake up every day, put her make-up on and earrings in, before coming to same bar and slot machine stools. A woman with nothing to live for, whose body seemed fueled by the booze she consumed for six hours, from nine a.m. to three p.m. daily, blowing money from God knows where, single dollar bill by single dollar bill while thousands of miles away shriveling in an antique bed, was a woman with a husband begging her to hang on and a longing to see a lost son.
Jake’s broken nights were spent dreaming of becoming the man his mother needed him to be. But when he woke, he was still the same Jake. He would roll over and shut his eyes, as a thick arm came across his chest and pulled him in.
Three weeks after he last heard her voice, the call he was hoping for and fearing finally came. He had waited too long and Mary Anne Morgan was to be buried on Saturday, four days away. “Could you please visit your mother now?” his father pleaded. “I know she wouldn’t want you to see her the way she is, but she would want to see you. After Saturday, you won’t be able to see her again. I’ll pay for your ticket, Jakey, just please come home.”
Jake listened to the message once, while grabbing a jar of cherries from the supply closet, his father’s voice barely audible in the background noise streaming in from the bar. At home, his fingers hit seven. Two more messages.
The man in the doorway watched as Jake listened to his father’s broken voice, Jake shaking his head and mumbling, “I can’t. I can’t let her see me.” Saturday came and went.
After two weeks of silence, his father called to check in, as if the spectre of his wife was hovering over to remind him of the family he still had. His son and the dog his son had left behind.
Jake had always planned on sending for Pongo, but as time passed, Jake became accustomed to a dogless life. And with his mother gone, his father seemed to need Pongo more than Jake could.
When Mary Anne died, it was Pongo, not Jake, who stood by and comforted Mr. Morgan. Every time Jake’s father would call, the only topic they could talk about, even for the three-minute call, was Pongo. The father would recount the dog’s misadventures, moods, and health updates, replacing the more morbid health issues Mary Anne’s cancer invoked. Pongo became the most important lady in Jacob’s life. Until the phone call from his father informing him of the continual shrinking of their family circle.
“I’m so sorry, Jakey. Your dog,” he sniffled. “Pongo’s dead!” The man gasped and sobbed for a minute before telling his son what had happened that day. “I came in from the garden to find her on the floor, in a puddle of her urine and throw-up. Her eyes were rolling around in her head.” He paused before he could finish.
“I picked her little body up, and her eyes opened for a minute. She looked straight at me and touched her nose on my cheek. I put her in the truck, to drive her to Dr. Wells, but before I got out of the driveway, I heard her yelp. I looked down and her tongue was hanging out of her mouth, and she wasn’t moving.”
Unable or uncaring to censure himself, Jake listened to the sobs of a sixty-year-old man.
Jake was finally ready to go back to Kentucky if only to bring Pongo back with him. He told Lou he’d be gone for a day or two, going back east to pick up the remains of the dachshund he left behind. Lou, noticeably uncomfortable in the role of the comforter, stood beside Jake and wrapped an arm around his shoulders.
“What’s the worst thing about owning a dachshund?” Lou asked. Jake shook his head, and Lou continued. “Telling your dad you’re gay.” Lou’s hand fell off Jake’s shoulder, smacked Jake’s back as he chuckled at himself. Jake looked down and forced a smile.
A red-eye to Nashville and quick car ride, Jake found what remained of his dog of 12 years inside the thermos he slurped Chicken and Stars from. His father cried as he parted with the container and the dog for the last time, like a child crying as his favorite toy was being taken away.
No discussion of his broken promise was made, and a visit to his mother’s grave was out of the question, Jake said, because his flight was due to leave in two hours.
“Jakey, about what I said to you before you left for Las Vegas. I was wrong. I don’t think any less of you. I know it’s not your fault for being the way you are,” he sighed. “And I know I’m the reason you never visited. I’m the reason your mom didn’t get her dying wish to see you, but I wanna make it right.”
Jake shoved the thermos into his duffle bag. “Nothing to say. You’ve told me how you feel and there’s nothing I can do about it. Can’t be what you want me to be.” Jake walked out the door to the rental. His father followed. “Son, you’re all I have now. I forgive you for the way you are.”
Before hearing those words, Jake was ready to put the old man at ease. Maybe not tell him everything, but still make the effort to be friendly if they couldn’t be family. But a confirmation of the fact that he would never, ever, understand Jake, blew that away in an instant.
Jake opened the car door and threw Pongo and his bag on the passenger seat, before turning to his father. “I don’t want or need forgiveness. Not from you.” He jumped in the car, turned the key and turned the car out of the driveway, leaving his father on the porch, to watch his son leave. Again.
Within fifteen minutes, Jake was on I-65 to Nashville, on his way back to Vegas. Puzzled looks were cast at Jake as he made his way through security, having to explain the contents of his container to the TSA while travelers bent in to hear what was in the the 1980s relic. “Why don’t you just check it in with your luggage?” the badged man asked.
“I’ve been apart from her for so long, I just want to be with her for the trip,” Jake said.
On the plane, the stewardess reached for the thermos in his hand before takeoff, offering to place it in the overhead bin. Jake said the same to the stewardess, “I’ve been apart from her for so long, I just want to be with her for the trip.” She walked away, looking back several times. His fingers gripped the thermos, instead of the arm rests, and soon he was flying out of Nashville and over Tennessee.
As the plane continued westward flying over Kentucky, Jake looked down at Pongo. Tears started to form in his eyes and before he could stop, Jake’s sobs grew louder. 21D and 20F turned to sneak glances at the crying nut. Hysterical, his head told him to shut up and pull it together. Pongo was just a dog, and he was tougher than this. He hadn’t been this upset when his mother died. Didn’t take a day off of work. Wouldn’t fly back for the funeral. Didn’t shed a tear. Why was he sobbing like a bitch over a 14-pound dog?
“Jesus,” he said loud enough to make 21F turn his head to look at the man holding the ancient jar. “I didn’t even get to see you one last time,” Jake seemed to say to the ashes housed in the childhood container in his lap.
Copyright © 2014 by N. Joy Lutton