I was still trying to read Baby’s face when I took the phone from her. I hit the speakerphone button so she could listen, too.
“Hey, boa. How you doing?”
“Not good, papa. The cancer finally got the best of David. He died in his sleep last night.”
“That’s not quite true, boa.”
“What do you mean?”
“The cancer didn’t get the best of him, you did. The cancer is just what killed him.”
I was still watching Baby’s face, and the tears came shooting out of her eyes, even as she vigorously nodded her head up and down. I may have a big mouth, but sometimes the right thing accidentally comes out of it.
I heard Jacob gasp on the phone, then silence. I was trying to think of something else to say, something to make him feel a little better, but Baby was holding one finger up in the air, telling me to wait a minute. It didn’t take long. I could hear him sob quietly, then suddenly he broke into full-blown wailing. The poor kid was self-destructing from the inside out. I couldn’t do anything but wait, and feel his pain, and it was killing me, too. It took him a while.
“Thanks Papa, I knew you would say something that would help me make sense of it.”
“It doesn’t make sense to me, Jacob. That’s just the way it works.”
“I know,” he whispered. Then a little louder: “that’s what scares me. We only have so much time, and then we get turned off like a light switch.”
“You’ve got a long ways to go, boa. It will be years and–”
“I’m not talking about me, goddammit! I’m talking about you!”
That one rocked me back in my chair. I am rarely speechless, but I had nothing. I looked at Baby for guidance, but all she did was roll her hand in a circle, the “get on with it” gesture. And drip big tears on the floor. Women. Can’t live with ’em, unless you have a mop bucket.
“Jacob, I’ve had a good long run already, but I’ve still got a while yet. Nobody can say how long, but I’m gonna kick off someday. It’s a popular thing to do. Almost everyone who’s ever been born has done it.”
“Yup, almost,” Jacob snorted. He sounded like there was about a gallon of snot in his nose. “I know all that, Papa. But what I’m saying is, I’m not ready for you to go yet.”
The kid is deep. I’ll give him that one. I’ve learned a thing or ten in my many decades of life on this spherical dirt thing, but he’s taught me a lot, too. Probably more than I’ve taught him, to be honest. He’s a smart kid, but I decided not to tell him that.
“Jacob, you’re a smart kid.” I don’t always stick with my plan. “You know you can’t really be ready for when someone dies because it’s just so… I don’t know the word.”
“Final,” Jacob said. “That’s the word you’re looking for. Wow. Late onset Alzheimer’s?”
“Yeah, smartass. It started the day I was born and hasn’t let up yet. My mind is like a steel wiffle ball.”
“You don’t have to tell me that, Papa. Every time we’re on the porch I can hear the wind sail through your ears. Sounds like someone blowing across the top of a soda bottle.”
“Are you saying I’m an airhead, boa? ‘Cause your granny says I am sometimes. That whistling sound is just me changing my mind about something.”
I heard Jacob snort over the phone, and it made me smile. Us Ferguson’s are a moody bunch sometimes, and we use humor as a defense mechanism. You’ve heard it said that laughter is the best medicine. We’re a sick bunch so we use humor like it’s sold over the counter. The boy was hurting bad, but he was getting better.
“They say that being able to change your mind is proof of an open mind,” Jacob laughed. “I just want you to change your mind about dying.”
Out of the mouths of babes come the most impossible demands ever. “Jacob, it’s a done deal. I’m gonna die someday, and no amount of ranting or positive thinking or self-help books or any of that happy horse shit will change that fact. Fact, boa.” I was looking at Baby for help but she gave me a palms-up. “I’ve made my peace with God or Buddha or the Universe or whatever you want to call it. He or she or it has given me the privilege of a good long walk at this life thing, and I’ve had one hell of a good time, boa. One hell of a good time. Even now, after all that, I’m ready to go someday. I’m in no damn hurry, I’ll grant you that, but the fastest way to die is to worry about it all the time. I ain’t gonna.”
“That’s not what I’m asking you to do, Papa. I’m asking you to not be okay with it yet because you have some things to teach me before you go.”
Something told me the little snot was about to sucker punch me again. He’s been doing it since the day he was born, but we’ll get to that later. I decided to deflect him with a little humor. It never works, it just gives me a chance to put my armor on. “Jake, I taught you how to pee in the big boy potty already. If you’ve forgotten, I’ll have to spank your ass with a rolled up newspaper again.”
“You taught me how to pee in the yard.” His voice had raised a bit so I knew he was trying not to giggle. “And with my back turned away from the wind.”
“See? All the rest is just icing on the cake, Jake. We learn as we go.” Trying my best to sound like Forrest Gump, I said “That’s all I have to say about that.” All three of us giggled, mainly because I don’t sound like Forrest at all, even though I’ve tried. “Next subject, boa. What else is on your feeble mind?”
“I have a girlfriend.”
That one took me and Baby both by surprise. Even though he’s going to be Sweet Sixteen in a few weeks, he never seemed to have much interest in girls. Or boys. Or even Rosie Palm, as far as we knew. “Hey, congratulations, Jacob. Tell us all about her.”
“Well, she’s smart, and pretty, and funny, and we’re getting married soon.”
My lit cigarette shot out of my mouth and barely cleared Baby’s big morning hair as it sailed over her; she didn’t notice because she was in shock. Gizmo, our Jack Russell Terrier, jumped off the arm of my chair and laid on the floor, her head on her paws, eyes and eyebrows alternating from my face to Baby’s and back again. I heard something slam shut and realized it was my colon.
“What do you mean, you’re getting married soon?” I said.
“I should’ve married her already.”
As is my custom, I remained calm in the face of adversity. “What the fuck! Jacob, is she pregnant?”
“What? Why would you think–” the boy stammered. “Oh! No, Papa, she’s not pregnant.” Jacob giggled; Baby and I did not.
“Wool… wool…” I had a million questions, but I couldn’t pick which one I wanted to ask most.
“Wool, he said sheepishly,” Jacob quipped. Ever the wiseguy. No idea where he gets it from. It did lighten the mood a little. At least she wasn’t pregnant, and I was almost glad that I wasn’t going to be a great great grandpa. Almost glad.
“I will sheepishly ask you another question. Get it?” I said.
“Sheep. Ewe.” Jacob laughed, sounding way too young to be a dad. “More corny humor, because you’re from Iowa, I know.”
“That’s right, boa. And Iowa boot to your scrawny ass. How come you should already be married?”
“Oh, nice, an Iowa pun.” Jacob snickered. “Okay, you remember how you said you should’ve never stopped chasing Baby all those years? You said you knew she was your soul mate the instant your eyes locked the very first time, but you kept messing it up, and you let your pride get in the way, and you were acting like a dumbass all that–”
“I got it, boa,” I growled, watching Baby’s eyes as she slipped out of her catatonic state and began to giggle, hard. Way too hard for my fragile ego. “We all know the sordid tale of JD Ferguson’s phenomenal dumbassery. Get on with it.”
“Well, that’s what I’m saying about my girlfriend. I don’t want to make that same mistake with her. I know she’s the one.”
“Jacob, you can’t possibly know a thing like that at your age. You’re only fifteen, and I was…” I let my voice trail off because it slowly dawned on me I had no valid argument. I was only thirteen when I met Baby, I’d seen her in the school hallway for maybe five seconds before she turned and looked at me, but I knew right then that she was mine. Sometimes you just know when you know, even if you don’t know how you know.
I thought back to all that struggle, good times and bad, and in seconds I could feel all the blood draining from my face. Jacob is a very logical young man, I knew deep in my heart that he’d thought this through, but still I feared that my youngest kin didn’t know a thing about love, or this girl, or even life in general. With my luck, and the bad genetics he inherited from me, he probably didn’t even know her name.
“I don’t even know her name, Papa.”
See? I told you.