Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Since Jessie's layoff (she called it "semi-retirement") she spent part of every day scanning old photos and adding them to her online family tree. It was a solitary task that suited her down to her socks, but what she missed was being able to talk about it. If Hank cared one whit about this project she could talk to him about it, but whenever she tried he changed the subject. He wanted the real family, not the idea of family. Finally he was blunt about it and she got the point, but she pouted and refused for a week to answer his calls.

"I know you're screening, Jessie. C'mon, get over it and pick up." She did, and he apologized, but she didn't try again to interest him. He did like to get pictures of Edgar, though, and there were plenty. Edgar never met a camera he didn't like, and even as an older man they liked him back. Today, drinking her second cup of coffee from her favorite mug with the Emerson quote, or maybe it was Thoreau - she had to check every time - she stared at the last picture of him she had taken. He and Louise were still living in the mountains near Ashville. Louise had gone back to Lloyd County with Hank (still Henry then) to see her mama, and Jessie had come without Rob or Bobby. If she had realized Louise would be gone she would have waited and come later. Visits without Louise got too honest, more raw than she was comfortable with. She remembered thinking that someday she'd want to know all this stuff about Edgar, but not right now, and probably not even this stuff. Definitely not that story about his mama.

On the day she had snapped this shot, he had been wearing a red Nike sweatshirt and Jessie had thought he must have picked it out because he looked so good in red. It wasn't true; Louise would have picked it out and even gotten it on sale. Jessie wished again that Louise was there. she preferred Louise to Edgar, preferred Louise to her own mother. Louise had forgiven her for that horrible time when Jessie was twelve, that unspeakable betrayal that Jessie hadn't forgiven herself for. It still made her wince to remember. It hadn't occurred to her to explain, to put the blame where it belonged. She had kept the guilt all to herself and marinated in it. One of her therapists twenty years later had used that word, and Jessie had to admit it worked. Her wife still reminded her that guilt is a useless emotion and mostly, almost always, she believed it.

"You oughta come down sometime when you can meet Henry. He's not a bad kid. My favorite son, you know!" Jessie had nodded agreement. It didn't need to be said that Hank was the favorite, without a qualifier. She had felt vaguely disappointing for eighteen years and had been frankly relieved when the baby had been a boy. Relieved that she hadn't had to be named Henry after her grandfather and relieved not to have been named after anyone at all. Her mother had picked up a baby name book and chosen something she liked, and Jessie had always been happy enough with it. Girls don't have the heavy lifting of carrying names and passing them off like batons to their own children.

Hank loved the picture and responded almost as soon as she hit SEND. He remembered the sweatshirt and confirmed that his mom had found it at a thrift shop the same day he had picked out a red Schwinn at Myer's General. He'd had to wait a while to get the bike. Louise put it on layaway and he'd started X-ing off the days on his oversized wall calendar. He had drawn a bicycle in the square for the day the layaway would be paid off. There was a photo attached, Hank on the bike grinning at the camera and Edgar standing turned slightly away, looking off into the distance.

Hank had sent other pictures, too, and still sent one from time to time. Jessie saw other people's lives in those shots, lives she could almost touch but not quite. Hank was there, she was not, and she gazed into the faces wondering if, behind the smiles, anyone was thinking about her.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Returned to sender

Jessie worried off and on that she hadn't done quite enough to end the estrangement with Edgar, so every few years she sent a letter of towards Texas and hoped for the best. She liked the romance of addressing an envelope with only "Edgar Markey, Texas," sending it out into the universe, but instead always looked him up on the internet. If that old SOB wants to stay lost, he's met his match with, she thought, but he won this round and the letter came back with the rubber-stamped pointing finger of failure. It didn't matter as much as she thought it might, since Aunt Mary Ann had sent the information she needed. Rena, the cousin of a cousin, had gathered more family facts than Edgar ever could have remembered. Plus, Edgar had a way of being coy with facts and memories, stretching them out like he'd be around forever to give you the next installment. Jessie didn't have the patience. Facts would die with his generation and eighty-seven is no age to be an information coquette.

Aunt Mary Ann disapproved of the way Edgar slipped through people's fingers. She felt uneasy never knowing if she could pick up the phone and expect him to answer. She knew why he avoided Jessie, and she didn't like that, either. Hadn't she had a son, that child of her heart? Hadn't she loved him no matter what, right through his last breath, and still? She loved Edgar fiercely, but didn't see how he could feel so righteous. Jessie suspected he didn't feel righteous at all, that there was something else keeping him gone.

Jessie had pieced together a lot, and the more she worked, the more it felt like a picture. It was a puzzle, with sections living and dead, and she was finally a piece that fit somewhere. Edgar was there, too, like Hank, but it didn't matter so much anymore whether either of them cared or not.

By the time the letter had come back she couldn't remember what she had written. Probably a quick question about his well-being first. It would have been sincere. Jessie wanted to know about hereditary problems like the high cholesterol and blood pressure. Next, probably a question about his grandfather - his name or profession - that Mary Ann or Violet answered weeks ago. Not even relevant. Probably a line or two about Edgar's grandson, but without details about too much weed or a lost driver's license. Jessie could say enough true things without all that. Then a simple "Love, Jessica." She almost tossed it into the recycling bin before she remembered she had enclosed a stamped envelope. No point in wasting that.

Her computer beeped and it was a new email from Hank. His oldest daughter, Ella, was in some sort of a thing at school, a play or a concert, and Jessie was glad they lived a thousand miles apart. She couldn't imagine the kind of family time Hank would require. He didn't care about the tree, about their lineage. He wanted the real family, and he wanted his father. He was relentless. She wanted to stun it out of him. You don't always get to have your daddy. Man up, for chrissake! but she kept it to herself. Susan got exasperated sometimes, too, but she knew where her own father was, and knew where he had been all his life, too. She wouldn't get it, so Jessie had to.