One Last Time
by M.D. Parker
He could see that Irene had fallen asleep again in the overstuffed Lay-Z-boy he’d always said they had spent too much on. It served her well now, and that made it worth it. He caught a glimpse of his reflection as he passed back into the kitchen. The glass of the old china hutch showed him a face he hardly recognized anymore.
“Jack, you’re sure lookin’ worse for wear.” He spoke aloud as studied the lines on his face and the lack of hair on his head. His own voice was unsettling in the quiet. The wind had slowed, and the rain was but a mist. He looked at her again and smiled. He’d come to see this as his favorite time for her; there was peace (he hoped) in her slumber. He snatched his keys from the counter top and marched out the door.
Jack made this trip enough that it was a rehearsed dance. Irene would take her evening nap, and he’d go to the little store three miles away. He’d grab himself one of those twenty-something ounce beers his doctor frowned on. He’d back in a jiffy and be sitting there watching her with a tall, chilled glass in his hand. Jack stopped at the car, holding its fender to steady himself, as several coughs wracked his body. He spat the ill-tasting phlegm and moved on.
All went according to plan. He gave a smile to the lady that reminded him of his daughter, and to the young man who, once per week, would fill his car with gas while he purchased his beer. It all went according to plan, until he rounded the curve of old Point Creek Road.
The storm had found new life sending the evergreens swaying, the creaking of their trunks louder than the whistle of the wind that danced between their limbs. The rain drops fell large and heavy on the windshield. Jack’s wipers cleared enough away to reveal a man on the side of the road. He stood there in a long coat, a tire iron in one hand and the other rubbing his head. A car jack lay beside his feet and a tire leaned against the side of a small car that Jack knew only one word to describe – jalopy.
Jack eased his car in behind him, leaving the lights on, and swung open his door. “Havin’ some trouble, I see?”
“Sure am. I am not even sure where I am and the spare’s flat,” he said stepping back to the space between the cars dropping the tire iron on the jack as he stepped over.
“Where you headin’?”
“Southport, but I pulled over at some diner. Think I took a left when I should have gone right, and wham, blown tire, and here I sit, ten miles from where I discovered I had no idea where I was.” They both chuckled. “Actually, do you have a cell phone? Mine’s dead.”
“Sorry, I hate the darned things,” Jack said as he walked up to the flat rear tire. The man joined him. They bonded, the way men do, over a broken piece of machinery. They stared at the flat tire as if to will it full of air again. Two seconds later the experience was over.
“I really hate to ask this, but could you give me a ride to whatever’s nearest?” Jack looked the man over. His long coat looked road weary, and in a hue somewhere between brown and deep red. His blonde hair showed signs of gray and was thin around the temple, but he was still far younger than Jack. There was something different, something wrong, in his eyes. Wrong, but not bad.
“I’ve gotta get back to my Irene. I’ve been gone longer than I like and don’t want to worry her. Tell ya what. Hop in, I’ve got a phone you can use at the house. Just another mile up the road. And by the way… you made it just outside Point Creek.”
The man agreed and Jack climbed back in and watched as he stowed the useless spare in the trunk. He came around to the passenger side and as the door came open, Jack spoke.
“Two things ‘fore you sit down. One, what’s your name? And two, just in case you’re thinking about doin’ something you ought not be doin’, just know that I survived hill nine-three-seven, so I know just what I’m willin’ to do. If ya take my meaning.” As if God tried to emphasize for Jack, lightning flashed, followed by the crack of thunder less than a second behind.
“Call me Coop.” He extended his hand, “And no sir, I wouldn’t dream of it.”
The two spoke briefly as they made their way to the driveway marked with the paw shaped sign that read ‘Woof’s Dog Breeding & Boarding.’ Once passed the dilapidated kennel house and inside, Jack pointed Coop off to the kitchen with it’s phone sitting on top of a phone book. Jack excused himself to the other room and found Irene pacing.
“Irene, honey, come sit down. I’m sorry I stopped to help this gentleman,” He pointed toward the figure barely visible through the archway into the kitchen.
“I … I woke. No one was here. I must have fallen asleep right? You were supposed to fetch my bags and show me to my room. And then I dozed.” Her eyes darted as she spoke with the left one falling behind the right.
“Yes. Exactly.” Jack tightened his jaw to hold the smile in place.
“Where am I? Where’ve you taken me? Sir, I demand… you explain and don’t think for a minute that my husband will be as polite as me when he…” Her voice trailed off lost for the words she tried to add.
“No ma’am. I brought you home. See.” Jack pointed to a picture of her and their daughter on the end table. “You said…”
“Don’t-care-what-I-said.” Irene’s words poured out all as one. She stammered, “Where’s my Jackie?”
“He’s on his way.” Jack hid his watered eyes from her as he helped her back to her recliner.
Coop watched as Jack guided Irene into her chair and noted the immobility of her arm as she sat and how he wiped his eyes as he stepped away. Irene’s voice let loose a quiet little humming rhythm as he entered the archway to the kitchen.
“I’m sorry. I should be going. You’ve been very kind, sir.” Coop turned toward the phone.
“No, no, don’t worry about it. She’s gonna be okay,” Jack said, waving off Coop. “But you should call Terry’s Towing. Reasonable and honest. Might take awhile with this storm comin’ in, but they’ll do ya right.”
“Thank you.” Coop flipped the pages of the phone book, found the number, and called. He listened, without watching, to the rustle of the paper bag and the clink of glasses. He heard Jack speak again to the lady with the white hair and the useless arm. He hung up the phone after conferring with the voice on the other end and providing them the number written on the base of the phone. “They said it’ll be at least ninety minutes. They said they can help after they finish with some accident on Route 39.”
“Figures. Almost always somethin’ bad on that road when the storms hit. In the meantime, have a seat. Irene’s settled in. Can I offer you a drink?” Jack held out the already poured glass.
Coop accepted the offer and took a long drink of the brew before removing his coat and taking the seat Jack offered him at the small table. Small talk was had for a few minutes, until Jack was arrested by another round of coughing. The conversation drifted off and Jack began watching the woman in the chair.
“How long you two been married?” Coop spoke softly knowing that mention of his Irene would snap Jack’s head back to this reality.
“Oh my, been forty-nine years now.”
“How long has she been like that?” Nodding toward Irene’s chair, he examined every muscle of Jack’s face.
“I’m sorry. Too personal.”
“No, it’s alright. I just, well, it’s hard ya know? It’s been a while, can’t really say for sure, it started slow. We almost didn’t notice until just before the stroke, just before the incident with Trinity.”
“Damn that evil word. Ya know, I’ve seen men killin’ each other, face to face, for reasons they didn’t understand. But I ain’t never seen anythin’ as evil as this.” His face turned toward her. He watched the back of her head, knowing she had dozed again. His eyes teared up again as he thought of her standing there before the judge during their first wedding, the secret one, before he shipped off to that God-forsaken land a million years and miles ago.
“So, what happened with Trinity? A dog, I presume?”
“Yeah. She was a character. Irene had been breedin’ dogs for nearly a decade when this one was born with some kind of messed up leg. Damn thing had to be amputated. Didn’t slow her down a bit. Trinity, she named her. ‘Cause she was on three legs and Irene said she was sent by God himself.”
Jack began to cough again, harder this time. He held the table with one hand while he produced his ‘snot rag’ from his back pocket. He hacked until the chunk broke loose and concluded its journey in his handkerchief. The taste of blood on his tongue was unmistakable, but he continued as though he had never paused.
“So, Irene had been forgetting things, names, what she was doin’, that sorta thing. But then one day she forgot to close the kennel gate. Trinity was running in the yard, watchin’ the other dogs, that was her thing. She never went near the road, except that day, chasin’ after one of the dog’s that was brought in for breeding, or boardin’, I never kept track of which was which. Trinity saved that other dog, but she never even saw the truck. It broke Irene’s heart, and mine, to close up all the kennels. I think she cried for three days. That’s when the doctor told us.”
“How long, Jack?” Coop’s voice dropped to a less subtle tone.
“How long what?”
“How long have you been sick? I guess the better question is, how long did they give you?”
“How… what, the hell… how?”
“Jack, listen to me.” His voice cascaded into Jack’s ears. “I can help. But I will only do so if you want me to.”
“What-the-Sam-hell are you talkin’ about?”
“Jack. Look in my eyes. See it.” And he did. Jack looked into the the deepest set of brown eyes he could recall. He saw something in them move, like clouds on a breeze. The flat tire was no accident, but something, from some other where, told Jack truer words were before him. This man knew what to do. He followed those eyes down the rabbit hole.
“I, I don’t understand.” His voice cracked, his eyes leaked a single tear down his cheek.
“One step at a time Jack. Now tell me how long?”
“A couple months. It’s inoperable, pretty far along. I’ve made arrangements. I already have a nurse that comes by a few times a week. I had to make sure my Irene was taken care of, ya know? I just want…”
“What Jack? What do you want? You must say it.”
“I jus’… I just want her to see me again. She almost never remembers who I am. I just wanna tell her one last time that she’s the most beautiful woman in the world. She deserves to hear it one last time before I go.” His hands shook as he spoke.
Coop stood and took Jack by the arm, guiding him into the living room where she sat. “Talk to her, she will need to be awake and she will need to see you.”
Jack looked up at the man who had become so strange, and somehow more, as he knelt down in front of her. He looked into her sleeping face and saw not the lines, but the years. He saw the the dinners, the birth of their daughter, the day they hung the Woof’s sign up. He saw the fights, oh there had been some doozies, and he saw the dances, the ones they’d shared in public and the times they had danced alone in the dark.
He looked up to the man standing behind the chair, hovering over them. He watched as the man he had been calling Coop rolled up his sleeves to reveal a strange tattoo. The visage of a golden arrow etched into the skin. Jack eyes could not be torn away as the ink started to glow and the arrow began to move.
“Wake her, Jack. Gently. Don’t watch me. Talk to her. Tell her everything that you want her to hear.”
Jack eyes returned to Irene’s face. A wave washed across his mind – erasing away every time his heart had broken when she didn’t know who he was. He spoke to her.
“Can you hear me? Irene, honey? We have to wake up now.” Her eyes came open and Jack froze. An eon of time passed in the next second. Irene’s mouth opened to speak. The arrow of gold rose like a specter from the man’s forearm and was held in his hand. His hand pulled back, then thrust its tri-bladed tip into the nape of her neck. Jack’s throat made way for violent words, that would precede his actions, but were lost in a race won by Irene’s own mouth.
“Jackie? What are you doing?”
“You shouldn’t be all squatted down on your knee like that.” Her voice, like the sound of trumpets from heaven, came to his ears. Jack could hardly remember the other man in the room. Irene took his hands as she stood. He barely noticed that the arrow had turned to mist and disappeared. He took no note as the man stepped into the kitchen and then out the door with his weary old coat. He did not feel the tearing pain, from the series of coughs his body released, in between the joyous sobs as she pulled him against her.
“You. my love, sound terrible. Come, let me get you to bed.” Irene moved without waiting for an answer. Jack had none to offer. He let himself be led by the hand to the bedroom. She sat him down and helped him undress before laying down beside him.
They laid, locked together, as they had so many times over so many years. Jack finally spoke again, “I love you, my beautiful.”
“I know, Sweetheart.”
She laid her head on his chest and closed her eyes as Irene one last time.
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