Mr. Jack sat under the hanging light at the kitchen table with an ashtray at one hand, a book under the other, and a cup of coffee in between. His casual posture made him look shorter than he was. Sometimes, he braced his elbow on the back of the chair and dwarfed a novel in the palm of his hand. His dark, wooly eyebrows straightened in concentration, sometimes lifting as he took a drag of his cigarette. From my place in the living room, near a lamp with a book on my lap, I could barely whiff his Marlboro. That’s what my dad had smoked before he quit cold turkey. But Mr. Jack and my father smelled alike anyway, that humid smoky scent of the Intracostal base where they both waited to fly helicopters to offshore oil rigs.
“What are you reading now?” he’d ask me. He spoke quickly. He was the only Yankee I knew, besides his wife and kids, and the speed of his words surprised me a little. His voice had the tone of a clarinet’s middle C, not deep for a man who stood at least six feet tall with wide shoulders.
I was always reading something. I was a freakish fourteen. I started my first year of high school without friends—I never discovered what happened to my small circle from junior high—and I turned to books to keep me sane. “Some psychology book on Jung,” I said once. “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I said another time. “Of Human Bondage,” I replied. “Ever read that one?” I could rarely stump him.
“Oh, yeah,” he’d say. He looked up with big round eyes. The smoke and light swirled around his thick brown hair and freshly-shaved stubble. “Isn’t that the one. . .” and he’d summarize the plot or remember a scene. He sipped his coffee—black and perhaps his fifth cup of it that day—and smoked his cigarette and talked to me as if I had an opinion worth hearing. Mr. Jack was the only person in my life at the time with whom I could have a decent conversation.
Mr. Jack worked with my dad, but our families’ deeper connection came through his children. Their son and daughter, Neil and Julie, were my brother and sister’s classmates. I was two years older than the boys and four years older than the girls. Because of the children’s friendships, my mom became friends with Miss Gail, Mr. Jack’s wife. During the first few years I knew the family, I spent visits at their house either as a fifth wheel among the kids or as an eavesdropper among the adults. It wasn’t until Noah was born, Jack and Gail’s surprise baby, that I got to know Mr. Jack outside of the context of our families. He and I had nothing else to do but talk while Miss Gail got dressed and settled Noah before they left for their date, leaving me responsible for the children. Mr. Jack and I always had a book within reach, so we had an instant bond that transcended age.
I thought Mr. Jack was a neat guy. He had grown up on an apple farm in the Northeast. That was irresistibly poetic. Every fall, his family sent huge wooden crates of fresh Macintosh apples, round and red like fruit caricatures. I liked to hear him and my father share stories about flying helicopters inVietnam and the men they knew during the war. Sometimes, he and my dad would go off into the den and listen to music. Mr. Jack loved bluegrass—fast, twangy, melancholy. He read constantly—everything from canon classics to low-brow spy thrillers. There were times I’d sit with the adults, and he and I would talk about favorite authors and novels. No one else joined in.
I didn’t know whether Mr. Jack considered me a friend, but that’s how I saw him. I looked forward to the nights I had to babysit for Noah not only because I loved him but also because I could visit with Mr. Jack. For a least one night every couple of weeks, I could ignore my lame teenage life and enjoy someone’s company. Typically, Mr. Jack shuttled me between my house and his with bluegrass music playing in the four-speed Volkswagen Rabbit that seemed too small for him. If there were any awkward silences between us, they were rare. He always had a dry joke at the edge of his tongue and a sharp, loud laugh to chase it. I remember discussing music, books, movies, and current events in a way that I didn’t with anyone else and wouldn’t for years to come.
Before my sophomore year of high school, I learned Mr. Jack was planning to transfer out of state. I was devastated. They had lived in my hometown for several years. I never expected them to leave. Although circumstances were better—I made new friends by the end of ninth grade—I was deeply attached to Noah and Mr. Jack.
My family went to visit the night before they moved away. Noah was sick with a cold and wouldn’t let me hold him. My brother and sister were playing with Neil and Julie, and the adults were talking in the living room. I sat on the floor in Julie’s room while Noah whined and crawled all over me. I was sad and angry about losing my friends, the kind most wouldn’t expect a fifteen-year-old to have. I heard my mother call for us to go. I hugged Noah tight as he smeared his snotty face all over my shoulder and took him into the living room. I stood off in the kitchen near the table, under the glow of the hanging light, while everyone started to say goodbye. I hugged Miss Gail and saw Mr. Jack behind her. He stood in a shadow near the back door. I didn’t move toward him. He didn’t move either. We didn’t even shake hands. Perhaps what stung the most was that in all the months we’d talked, the only thing we said to each other was good-bye. From the moment I walked out of the door, I regretted not telling him—in some way—how much he meant to me. But upon reflection, I wasn’t actually sure I meant something to him. I was only a kid myself.
I was certain I’d never see them again except in photographs. If I were that lucky.
Flash forward sixteen years.
During that time, Mr. Jack and Miss Gail divorced when Noah was six. My sister and my mom stayed friends with Julie and Miss Gail. Dad kept in contact with Mr. Jack through work, however distant. Then in 1999, Julie had her first son. The thank-you note I received for the gift I sent included the baby’s picture. He reminded me of Noah. The infant’s little face sparked old feelings about his uncle—and grandfather.
My mom called me a couple of weeks before the baby’s second birthday to let me know that Julie had invited me to his party. Julie had moved back to Louisiana sometime after her little son was born. The party was going to be a big deal. Both of her parents were flying in to be there. I knew that I couldn’t miss the chance to see them all again.
When I saw Mr. Jack for the first time in years, I felt gratitude. It was a reunion I never expected to have. The lines around his eyes were deeper, but I would have spotted him in a crowd without a second glance. He sat on a barstool with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. He put that down when my parents and I walked toward him. Mr. Jack shook hands with my dad and hugged my mom. He opened his arms to me, and I hugged him tight around the neck. We all talked for a little while, and then I mingled with Miss Gail and other people I hadn’t seen in a long time.
After a buffet lunch, I had some time alone with him.
“Okay, so you’re in graduate school, right?” he asked. I knew someone had updated him.
“Yes, working on my master’s of fine arts degree in creative writing. It’s more personal than professional. I figured now was a good time to spend some time on myself, although I don’t like the fact that I’m not putting much into retirement right now.”
He laughed. “What are you going to do when you graduate?”
“Probably go back to the corporate world. I liked it there. Maybe get some job at a nonprofit. Something where I’m in charge and can make decisions.”
“What about your writing?”
“Well, I’d like to get a few books published in the next five to ten years, maybe teach at the college level later.”
“You got it planned out.”
“You always were a little anal retentive,” he said affectionately. “I mean organized.”
I didn’t ask what that meant because I had a feeling I knew. He and Miss Gail trusted me with their children, especially Noah, because I kept them entertained and safe, and the house was always tidy when the adults returned. “So what are you up to?”
“Still flying. I was hoping for an early retirement myself, but I’ve been taking a beating with the stock market. Looks like your dad and I will be working for a while longer. I’m getting too old for this shit, you know.”
“Are you still a big reader?”
“Oh yeah. I probably go through about five a week.”
Our conversation became familiar. I was an adult, and my tastes had changed. I’d become more diverse in what I liked, and Mr. Jack had shifted to mass market fiction. We talked about our families. Neil was working on the family apple farm, and Noah, a senior in high school, was doing well. He had grown up an avid reader as well. He wrote poetry and thought about majoring in philosophy. My brother was married and working as a mechanical engineer. My sister was going through a divorce and looking for a job in marketing. When I told him about Todd, my partner of twelve years, Mr. Jack said, “God, now I feel old if you’re old enough to be living with a man that long. What’s he like?”
Before I could tell him much, we were cut short when it was time for the baby to blow out his candles. “Excuse me. I don’t want to miss this,” he said. I watched his dark head—his hair hadn’t thinned—disappear in the crowd.
As the guests ate cake, I thanked Julie for the invitation.
“You’re welcome. I’m so glad you could make it,” she said. “But it was actually my dad’s idea. He wanted to see you.”
“Oh,” I replied, stunned. I never considered that he might be curious about how I turned out. I wondered if he, too, felt as if he’d left something unsaid years before. “That was sweet of him. I really wanted to see you guys, too. When will I ever get this chance again?”
I left with my parents about half an hour later. I hugged Mr. Jack, and we shook hands from outstretched arms as I walked out. The handshake was an unnecessary and somewhat desperate gesture. I didn’t want to let go again. I was looking at Mr. Jack from the door leading outside when he shook hands with my father and said in his good-bye, “You’ve got some great kids.”
That time, when the door closed between us, I think we both knew, for certain, we had once been novel friends.