I sat there, stunned and reminiscing, for what felt like hours. Baby told me later it wasn’t even a minute, but my whole life flashed before my eyes.
It’s been said that little boys never stop being little boys, that we don’t grow up, we only grow taller. I’m living proof of that, and I hope to some extent that Jacob never grows up completely. He’s potty trained and mostly housebroken, but other than that, I hope and pray he never gives up on his dreams.
I want nothing but a lifetime of happiness for him, but the scared little boy inside of me was hiding behind me, looking up at me and screaming “save him! Before it’s too late, save him!” I knew he needed me right now on some level, but I couldn’t figure out what to do or say. The scared little boy in me wanted his mommy.
My mind time-traveled back to a night, me in my pajamas with feet — one of the greatest inventions of all time — and a movie played in my mind of me and my only brother Bob, sitting on our little redheaded Irish mom’s lap in that old wooden rocker. I have thousands of those movies tucked away in my mind, and they just pop out like that sometimes without any warning. It’s like a matinee where the projectionist is fueled up on whiskey and cocaine, and he knows you can’t escape the theater.
In this movie, Ma’s reading nursery rhymes to us, her huge smile looking at Bob, then me, back and forth, then at the book for the next rhyme.
What are little boys made of?
What are little boys made of?
Snips and snails
And puppy dog tails
That’s what little boys are made of
And then the movie just ends. I call bullshit. Sometimes little boys are made of lips and jails and bomb vapor trails. I’m not saying Ma was bullshit because she did the best she could with the heathens God or Buddha or the Universe or whatever dumped in her lap. I’m saying that it’s up to every man-boy to make his own path in this world. Mine’s riddled with the hearts and souls of enough people to stretch to the Moon and back.
To say that my mind wanders around, just itching to get into trouble, is an understatement. That’s the other little boy in me, the one that never grew up, never quit looking for the next thrill, never quit writing Baby off as a lost cause, trying to replace her with a string of lovers and wives that just didn’t fit right. I had her, then lost her, again and again, and every time I lost her, it was my own damn fault. Every. Single. Time. Ma raised us right, never once failed to tell us she was proud of us when she was, and never failed to tell us we disappointed her when we did.
That’s another movie in my head. One of the many dates I had with Baby before I got my shit together. Ma was just as excited as I was before I left her house that night, she’d seen something good and stable and loving in Baby — all the qualities I didn’t have — and after I fucked it up, I stopped by Ma’s house.
This movie starts while I’m walking up to her door. I walk in, Ma peeks around the kitchen door, and it took a whole millisecond for her to analyze my face. I’ll never forget how her shoulders slumped, her head tilted to one side in the Sympathy Mom pose, and I just froze in my tracks. I didn’t say a word, just held out the ring she’d given me — her grandmother’s wedding ring — the ring she wanted Baby to wear forever and ever. I’d told Ma I was going to propose to Baby, and she cried happy tears when she handed that ring to me.
“Oh, JD…” That’s all she said. That’s all it took. She closed the gap between us, and was hugging what was left of me, which wasn’t much, really. I was too ornery and too mean to cry back in those days, but I burst into a torrent anyway. When I had no more tears left, and I was sure she was going to drown in my snot, she let loose of me, pulled the bottle of Jack Daniel’s from the kitchen cabinet, put it in my hand, and pointed at the kitchen chair. I poured half of that bottle into me, and vice versa, without saying a word. I looked up a few times and was surprised she was there because I couldn’t get the horror of the date, and my mistakes, out of my head. Ma sat there the whole time, chain smoking and waiting until I was ready to talk.
I don’t want you to get the impression that Ma was one of those sweet Stepford Wife moms who always kissed your ass. She was a brutally honest woman who kicked me and Bob’s dumb asses sometimes when we needed it, which was usually before breakfast. But she had a Thing about her, always had time to listen to us, made us feel special. All of our friends called her Mom too.
I looked into her eyes, finally, and wiped my snotty nose on my sleeve, which always pissed her off to no end, and got ready to spill my guts. “Okay,” was all I said. I knew she’d take it from there.
“So,” she said, French inhaling her foot-long Benson and Hedges, “how’d you fuck it up this time?”
I laughed, of course, because it was just her way. Like I said, she didn’t pull any punches, and she was right. I’d fucked it up royally. I decided to take the gentle approach with her.
“Fuck off, you old bat. I’m not in the mood for your shit.” I watched her Irish eyes narrow down, and her lips pursed against each other as she tried not to smile. “Not only that,” I said, turning serious, “it feels like I’m dying inside.”
Ma never stopped staring at me as she leaned across the table and used her Jedi mind tricks to make me look her in the eyes. “You are dying on the inside, JD. And you’re taking me and my favorite future daughter in law with you.” I nodded slowly at her, kept my lip from trembling, and waited for the punchline. Right on cue, she said “but you can stop killing all of us if you want.”
I knew her answer came from deep inside her, and I knew she would make me work to understand it, but I probed her anyway.
“How do I do that, Ma?”
“You already know how, JD.” She hid Loving Mom face behind Poker Player Mom face and took another drag on her cigarette. “By doing all the things you ain’t. Can I get you anything?”
“How about a cynanide chaser? This whiskey’s a little weak.”
“Check the medicine cabinet.”
“Hey! Old man! Say something.”
I looked up at Ma, and she’d turned into Baby. That’s what it felt like, but in reality I had traveled forward in time, back to the present day, to the phone conversation with Jacob. Baby was giving me the evil eye like she does when I get lost in thought and forget to check into the real world; Jacob was snickering on the phone. It was my turn to say something, I guess, so I dug down deep and came up with something witty.
Baby rolled her eyes so far back in her head she could see the crap we keep in the attic. “Jacob was talking to you? Remember?”
“Yeah, Baby, I remember. Sorry, I got lost in thought.”
“Senile old man,” Jacob chuckled.
“Wiseass new kid,” I replied. “Boa, don’t you ever let your mind wander?”
“Well, yeah, duh,” he said. I’d caught him by surprise. It’s a gift of mine.
“I do too. But sometimes it doesn’t come back home before the street lights come on.”
Baby started giggling, the quiet one where she shakes her head at me like I’m the strangest human she’s ever met, and probably should be locked up somewhere. That’s highly accurate, but she’s kept me around for entertainment purposes. In a few seconds, her arms were holding her guts in, and she was crossing her legs to keep her bladder from malfunctioning. Jacob was howling with laughter on the other end of the phone line. I just sat there, listening to the sweet music of laughter bounce around the room, quietly giggling to myself. I should probably explain why it’s so funny.
Back in the day, after Baby and I were married, one of my grandsons was spending part of the summer at our place here in Roadapple Ridge. He was going out with some friends after supper, and I joked that I wanted him home before the street lights came on. It was a rule when I was young, and when my boys were young, and it was passed down like a family heirloom. As we all grew older, the rules changed; be home by eleven, or whatever.
So my seventeen year old grandson left for the night, still giggling at the street lights rule that no longer applied to him, and when I woke up at four AM and checked on him, the bed in the guest room was undisturbed. He wasn’t asleep on the couch with the TV on, either; an overnight thunderstorm knocked out the power, and the power company rarely got in a hurry to do anything unless you forgot to pay your bill.
Just as I looked out the front picture window to see if his car was in the drive, a taxi pulled up to the curb, the kid opens the back door, and falls face first into the wet grass. I’d like to say he was a little drunk, but that’s an understatement. Baby would’ve gone out to help him make it in the door, but I’m more of the self-help variety of nurturing. In other words, I just watched.
It’s less than a hundred feet from the street to our door, but he had stumbled and weaved and crawled at least five times that far already, and he still wasn’t much closer than he was when he fell out of the cab. I knew this was going to take a while, so I sighed, and did what all good grandpas do at times like these: I went to the kitchen and started a pot of coffee on the ancient camp stove we use when the power is out.
By the time I made it back from the kitchen, he was crawling up the steps of the porch, stopping after each one and looking up at the next step like it was as big as Mount Everest. He finally made it to the top of the porch, leaned against the door to get on his feet, and opened the door just as the electricity came back on.
Blinking at the sudden glare coming from the kitchen light, he saw me, and grinned the most crooked grin I’d ever seen on the boy. Vaguely pointing somewhere out the door, he turned his voice up to Amplified Drunk Guy, and yelled “street lice! Jush in time!” To this day, it’s one of those family stories that’s retold during family get-togethers.
Anyway, Baby and Jacob were getting their laughter back under control, and I was sitting there enjoying the sound of it when I remembered the subject matter at hand.
“Jacob, what do you mean you don’t even know her name?”
“Well, I’ve seen her at the store, but I’ve never had the nerve to introduce myself. She’s older than me, too, and that bothers me a little bit.”
“You know what they say about older women,” I snickered.
“No, Papa,” he said. “Do tell.”
Baby cleared her throat, and she was giving me That Look again. “Beats me, I was asking you,” I said.
Jacob laughed again, then turned serious again. “That’s what I want to talk to you about when you’re here. That’s why you can’t die yet. I need your advice.”
“You must be a desperate man, boa.”
“Hey, watch it!” I said. “What about your dad? Have you tried talking to your dad? Hell, Jacob, we won’t be there until our birthdays next month. Knowing your last name’s Ferguson, you probably don’t think it can wait that long.”
“I know it can’t wait that long. And have you tried talking to my dad? He doesn’t know shit about women.” Jacob giggled again, then continued. “Dad said you’ve undressed more women than a big city coroner.”
“Sounds like something he’d say. Did I ever tell you your Dad’s my favorite grandson?”
“Good, I’d hate to lie to ya.” I grinned as the youngster giggled on the line. “Jacob, listen. That was many years ago, and I gave all that up when I won Baby over. Hell, boa, she don’t even let me date no more.”
“Wow, how selfish,” Jacob laughed. “I would think she’d want to get rid of you bein’ she’s so far out of your league.”
“Did I ever tell you you’re my favorite great grandson?”
“I’m your only great grandson.”
“That’s the other reason why I never told ya.”
“Ha ha! I should’ve known you’d get the last word in.” Jacob exhaled before continuing. “Papa, I want you to be serious for a minute.”
“A whole minute at my age? I don’t even plan meals anymore, Jake.”
“Sick but funny. Seriously, though, I want you to teach me about girls.”
I was silent for several seconds, an act as foreign as pigs pirouetting by the light of the moon. “Did I hear you right, boa? You want me to teach you about girls? Have you lost your mind? Don’t you know how many times I’ve been married?”
“Well yeah,” Jacob laughed, “but I haven’t lost my mind. You said you made every possible mistake while you stumbled around trying to snag Baby. I figure a man like that’s got to have a million stories to tell.”
“I do, Jake. A million mistakes. I could tell you all those stories but all it would do is teach you how to not win friends and influence people.” I had to admit, it was flattering that he wanted my advice, but it felt like I was being backed into a corner or something; I wasn’t sure why. “Jacob, taking advice from me would be like… taking advice from Edison on how to invent a light bulb. He did it all wrong before he got it right.”
“But he did get it right eventually. Checkmate, Papa.”
I felt my jaw hit the floor, my cigarette sticking to my bottom lip, just hanging there. I probably looked about as smart as a screen door, but that would be an insult to screen doors. Baby burst into her little girl laughter, and I could picture the little shit’s smug grin looking at me over the airwaves. Again, I had nothing to say.
“Good one, Jake,” Baby giggled.
“Thanks, granny,” he said, even though Baby isn’t, technically, his grandma. We’ll get to that later, too.
I was now stuck in that corner I had feared. It actually made sense in a strange way. To this day, I still seem to have a knack for learning something by doing it wrong every possible way until I run out of moronic ideas.
They say history repeats itself, but I wish they, whoever they are, would shut the hell up. My history with women was pathetic back when I met Baby, and I ran her through the proverbial ringer, over and over again, until I finally got it right. I’m not bragging like I did anything the right way, I’m trying to say that I just ran out of stupid. Speaking of stupid, I made another attempt to talk some sense into the boa.
“I stomped on some hearts, and my kids, and on and on. I’m not proud of how I got here. I don’t know that I can look you in the eye and tell much of it. I wouldn’t want you to think badly of me, or anyone else involved. Mission Impossible, boa.”
“As always,” Jake said, “should you or any of your I.M. Force be caught or killed, the sexy Jakey will disavow any knowledge of your actions. This tape will self-destruct in five seconds. Good luck, Papa.” Then that mangy mutt had the nerve to laugh out loud. “Oh, by the way, I.M. stands for Impossible Missions, not Instant Messaging.”
I was in a full-blown belly laugh by the time he said sexy Jakey, and I knew, against better judgement, that I was going to tell him everything there was to not know about life, the universe, and women. I don’t give in easily sometimes, though.
“I got a lot of things to do today, Jake.”
“Leave Granny out of this.”
“Good one, boa.”
“Thanks, Papa. Are you in the truck yet?”
Baby’s hand was covering her mouth, but I could see her eyes and shoulders laughing. “No, boa, I’m not in the truck yet. We’ll be there next month, like I said.”
“You don’t have a thing to do between now and then except get dusty, or whatever it is you do all day.”
I almost cracked up over that one, especially when Baby crossed her legs again. “You’re startin’ to piss me off, boa.”
“You’re a little slow, old man. I’ve been tryin’ to piss you off since birth.”
“My sock drawer is a mess, Jake. I’ve been meaning to get it off my to-do list.”
“How long’s it been on there?” He was giggling quietly; he knew he was winning.
“Oh, let’s see, I think I was eight when I noticed it.”
“They hadn’t invented socks when you were eight. I just put a brand new bottle of Jack Daniel’s out on the table.” I knew what table he meant, the one sitting on the wraparound deck of the ranch’s cabin there in Colorado.
“Dad got a new batch of medicinal marijuana. I don’t know why, he never touches the stuff. Must be a whole sock drawer of the shit here.”
“Jake, we can’t just—”
“I’ll make omelettes for breakfast tomorrow morning. And I’ll carry your bags from the truck up to your room.”
I was still watching Baby, and her head was tilted to the side in that way where she tries to manipulate me when she wants something real bad. It’s her “aww, he’s so cute” look, or whatever the situation requires. She thinks it’s funny as hell. I think it’s just sick and pathetic the way she takes me for granted like that, especially since it works every damn time.
“Whiskey, weed, omelettes, and pack mule service? You’ll have to do better than that, kid.”
“I won’t run my mouth for the first five minutes.”
“Load up, Baby,” I smiled at her, “I gotta see this for myself!”
Jacob, laughing again: “Fuck you, Papa.”
“You won’t like fuckin’ me, boa, it’ll make your butthole hurt.”
“I’ve seen you pee in the yard. It won’t hurt much. Mom’s making chili.”
“Too late to talk me out of coming now!” Jacob’s mom Lynn, my great granddaughter, makes the best chili ever, but there’s a family joke behind it.
“What time do you think you’ll be here?”
“Hard to say. I’m waiting for you to hang up the phone so we can leave.” I heard him giggle real quiet, then the line went dead. The little mongrel hung up on me, and that made me giggle, too. I stuck the phone in my shirt pocket and looked at Baby.
“I love you, JD.”
I love you, Baby.”
“Jacob loves you too, you know.”
“Yeah, you both have rotten taste in men.”