Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Dead of Winter - 1984

It was the dead of winter in Dawsonville, Georgia when young Jack Bronson found out that his mother had left.  He had just come home off his seventh grade school bus when he spied his Nana’s blue Buick in the driveway.   His father’s red Ford pick-up truck was also home which was strange because his dad always worked late on Fridays.   He walked through the door of the house which had a living room with overstuffed torn leather couches that were covered in his mother’s crocheted throws. 
“Where’s mom?” he asked innocently enough as he put down his books and rummaged through the ice box for last night’s fried chicken.  He was tall for his age, but rather skinny.  He could easily put away a whole tray of chicken or an entire large pizza without thinking about it.  “We need to talk,” said Nana with a concerned tone in her voice.  Even at 14, Jack knew that no good conversation ever started out with those four words.   He looked at his father and grandmother who were somber and sitting at their dinette which was really a card table with four folding chairs.  “Your mother has left,” said Tom Bronson abruptly as he ran his hand through his unkempt stock of dirty blond hair.  Nana shot her son a dirty look and tried to cushion the blow.  “Jack, it seems she needed to take some time and figure things out,” said Nana gently.   “Jesus Christ mother, don’t sugar coat it for the boy - she’s gone.  She left me and her son plain and simple.”  Jack’s father walked past Jack and got another Miller from the ice box. 
“Wait, what do you mean she’s gone?”  Jack sat down at the table looking into Nana’s tired brown eyes hoping to get more answers.  “She’s been screwing Teddy Jenson for months and ran away with him – goddamn whore!”  fumed his father.  “Watch your language son – the boy needs –“  Nana started.  “The boy needs to know that his mother was a lying slut – making a fool of me –of us – shit- we’re the laughing stock of the town.”  Tom was getting drunker, angrier and his blue eyes were more glazed and bloodshot.   Nana stood up and looked at her son.  “I know you are upset, but you have your son to think about and you are in no condition to discuss this with him.   How about I take him for the weekend?  You get your bearings and we’ll discuss things tomorrow.”   Nana walked to Jack’s room to get his overnight bag.   Father and son sat there awkwardly regarding each other. 
“But Mom said she’d take me to see Ghostbuster’s this weekend,” Jack said,
his eyes filling with tears.   Jack’s mother Angela shared his fascination with ghosts, the paranormal, and everything that he considered cool.  His father was distant and dismissive – he was a few years older than Angela who he had married out of high school and their age difference took its toll on their marriage as did the Tom’s drinking and his abusive outbursts.   Jack’s mother was the one buffer that kept his father from constantly taking a belt to him because he felt his son’s mind was full of crazy dreams that would never come true.   “Boy, listen to me straight – that woman is more than likely out of our lives forever and the sooner you get used to it the better –“ Tom guzzled down another beer and threw it into the garbage can on top of the five he had already finished off. 
Nana returned to the kitchen with Jack’s small overnight bag and his stuffed 101 Dalmation puppy which his mother had given him when he was two – he still slept with it every night.  “Oh, hell no – he’s not walking out of this house with that stuffed dog so he can sleep with it like some goddamn faggot – you’ve got to stop coddling him Mother!”  He grabbed the dog and walked to the outside garbage bin and threw the stuffed puppy in there.   Young Jack was reeling – he whispered “Pup-Pup!” and looked at Nana who gave him a reassuring nod.   “We’re going now.  If you need to tie one on tonight – I understand but you better be sober when we return on Sunday afternoon,” Tom looked away and didn’t even say good-bye to his son.  
Nana and young Jack walked slowly out to the car but as they passed the trash bin, Nana picked up Pup-Pup and put him discreetly in her purse.  The drive to her house was silent.  She didn’t want to push Jack to say much of anything but still wanted him to tell her how he felt.  Young Jack on the other hand felt this was a huge mistake.  His father had driven her away – his beautiful mother would never betray the family.  He was her little man – the person she would pour her heart out to.  He knew his parents were having issues but not enough to just abandon him completely.  Yes, he knew his father was an asshole.   But she was smart, funny, pretty and she told her son every day how much she loved him.  This was just one big cluster fuck – he was sure of it.  If he could just talk to her – he could make things right or maybe she’d take him with her – mothers always got custody and then he’d never have to see his father again. 
Nana pulled into the driveway of her one story ranch.  They walked into her small kitchen which smelled of coffee and biscuits instead of stale beer.  Nana put Jack’s bag in the guest room where he would spend the night from time to time.  He sat on the bed and stared blankly at the wall which had a poster of Bill Murray as Dr. Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters.  Nana had gotten it for him
for Christmas but his father insisted the poster stay at her house.  Jack wanted to be a real life Ghost Buster but his father dismissed it as a load of crap.  His mother never ruled it out and they would check out books on ghosts from the library since they could not afford to buy them.  He reached for Pup-Pup and realized that his stuffed animal like his childhood was gone.  He fell back on the bed and started to cry.  His father was not around and he didn’t have to be brave for his mother when his dad would strike out.  He was at Nana’s – a safe zone and she would let him cry even if he was a boy and boys should never cry.   He closed his eyes and felt the warm salty water fall down his cheeks.  He grasped the pillow and buried his head in it.   Nana asked him if he needed anything and he mumbled “No!”   His quiet sobs exhausted him and he ended up napping for two hours.  When he woke up – Pup-Pup was sitting next to him – newly washed and smelling like fabric softener.   Jack grabbed the little dog and hugged him – it didn’t matter that his father would call him a faggot for doing so – it was a gift from his mother and one of the last things he now had of her. 
Nana was standing at the door and watching.  “Nana, how did you-?” he asked still holding Pup-Pup. “I got him out of the garbage and washed him which he badly needed– you can keep him here where he’ll be safe,” she said as she sat on the bed next to Jack.   “I’m so sorry about today-your mother leaving and your father – he means well but he’s just so hard headed and hurt from the war–“ Nana found herself in the difficult position of once again making excuses for her son to her grandson.  “Do you want to see a movie tonight?” she asked trying to quickly change the subject. “Ghostbusters, The Karate Kid and Indiana Jones are playing at the cheap movie theater down the street – they have hot dogs and buckets of buttered popcorn for 50 cents – my treat.” Jack smiled and hugged his grandmother – no matter how bad things got – Nana had his back. 
Angela Bronson sat next to Ted Jenson as they drove out of Georgia and into
Alabama.  The excitement of finally being with her lover was tempered with leaving her son with her abusive husband.  She brushed her long blond hair from her face and looked out the window as they traveled on  I-20 on the way to Birmingham – nothing but road and trees and her own thoughts as Ted fumbled with the radio.  Ray Parker Jr.’s Ghostbusters theme came on the radio – Ted began to chuckle – Angela started to cry.  She and Jack were supposed to see the movie that night for the 10th time at the cheap movie theater but she saw her chance to escape and took it.  “Please change the dial,” she said choking back tears.   Ted fumbled again and Stevie Wonder’s I Just Called to Say I Love You blared from the stereo.   Ted started to sing the lyrics badly trying to cheer her up. 
Angela smiled – not because Ted’s singing was actually making her feel better but it gave her an idea.  She asked if they could stop at the next rest stop so that she could call her son and tell him that she loved him and they would sort all this out.  She knew her husband wouldn’t let her talk to him but maybe if she could get to her mother-in-law she might have a chance – she had an answering machine.  If she couldn’t talk to Jack directly, she could at least leave him a message with her and pray that he got it. 
The cold night air bit harshly as Angela and Ted got out of the car.   He offered to get her a coffee as she fumbled for change to call her son who was probably confused and angry.  She didn’t want her son to think that was his fault.   She had a plan – she was going to get him in a few months after they had settled in Birmingham and they could start a whole new life together.  Ted would make a great step-dad and she was still young enough to have more children.  But right now, she needed to talk to her boy, her little Jack – the one person on the planet who completely understood her. 
She dialed her mother-in-law’s number slowly wondering if he was there and if Claire would let her talk to him. They had never really gotten along and now that she had left her son chances were she would not be all that willing to pass a message on.  But mother to mother, she had to understand how much Jack needed to hear from her right now.   The phone rang four times before the answering machine picked up.  Angela knew her mother-in-law liked to screen her calls so she made her plea as simply as possible.  “Jack, this is Mom.  I’m so sorry about today.  I know how confused you must be – you might even hate me which I would understand.   But I love you so much.   I tried to stay.  I really did but I couldn’t but that does not mean I don’t love you.  I’m trying to make a new life and when it’s secure, I’ll come and get you because you are my little man.  I love you more than anything.  Always remember that – Jack.  I love you and we’ll be back together soon.”  Angela hung up the phone feeling that as much as she told Jack that she loved him – it would never be enough.   Ted handed her a Styrofoam cup of black coffee and a Snickers.   Angela smiled because he remembered her favorite candy bar - something her husband would never had done. 
Nana and young Jack returned from the movies – a double feature of Ghostbusters and The Karate Kid - full of popcorn and corn dogs.  “Let’s get you to bed Honey,” said Nana who was actually more tired than her grandson.   Jack smiled, kissed his grandmother and went into the guest room.  He sat on the bed and the silence in the room only highlighted that his mother was not around.  He picked up Pup-Pup and hugged him hoping to pick up the scent of his mother but instead got nothing more than a whiff of Tide and Downy.   Jack got in his pajamas, curled up with his stuffed animal and prayed things would get better.
Angela fell asleep in the loving arms of her soon to be husband Ted.   It had been ages since she’d been able to sleep through the night – her current husband always kept her on edge because she was never sure if he would suddenly turn on her.  Her slumber was riddled with guilt about leaving her son behind.  She wished she had been able to go to school to pick him up but she feared a call to her husband would tip him off and scrap the entire plan.  It had not always been that way – Tom was once a loving man when they first met when she was a senior in high school stopping by Walgreens where she worked to pick up a pack of Marlboros.  He was five years older and out of college - handsome and muscular - but he had a sensitive side.   He’d write her poems and leave them on the counter in an envelope.  They got married when she graduated and their life was practically perfect until he was called to serve in Vietnam when Jack was two.  Angela begged him to move the family to Canada to avoid the draft but he insisted that it was his duty as an American and he would fight with honor like his father did in World War II.  
But Vietnam was not an honorable war – it was where young men sacrificed their youth, idealism and mental health. When they came back to the states, they were treated like criminals.  To this day, Angela didn’t understand what the war was about – but sadly it had killed the man she knew and left an angry bitter person whose temper could inflict verbal or physical pain without warning.   She often begged him to go to the VA hospital and get some help but his pride got in the way as it had always had.  
Jack stirred out of his sleep the next morning to hear the faint sound of his mother telling him that she loved him.   “It was all just a dream – I knew it!” he thought happily and jumped out of bed.  He ran to her voice to find Nana’s disapproving face playing the message back and not realizing it had awoken Jack.  “Where’s Mom?” Jack asked still not realizing it was a message and not the real thing.  
Nana tried to brace herself.  Her fury at Angela for betraying her son was almost overwhelming but she knew Tom had problems ever since he had come home from Vietnam just as her husband had from Germany.  The difference was that WWII veterans were treated as heroes, liberators.  Vietnam vets were considered damaged goods by the general public and worse criminals and baby killers by the war protesters.  Her husband had more support in the 1940’s but her son had nothing – people were afraid to hire Vietnam vets around these parts because of all the bad press. He had to resort to odd jobs – this from a man who could have had brilliant career as an attorney, a writer – anything he put his mind to.  But the war had damaged his soul – left it with a black stain on his psyche that made it seem like any dream was impossible.
“Nana, that was Mom, can I hear the whole message?  Please!” pleaded Jack.  For a nano second – Nana considered erasing the message – erasing this irresponsible woman from their life.  But she didn’t – the only good thing that woman had done was bring Jack into the world and she would honor Jack even if she wanted to throttle Angela.  Nana said nothing and replayed the message.   Jack listened and his tears spoke volumes.   His mother’s words “I love you more than anything.  Always remember that – Jack.  I love you and we’ll be back together soon,” meant that there was still a chance to be together.  Natively he thought Nana would come with him.  “Let’s get some breakfast,” said Nana quietly lost in her own thoughts and wondering if she should play the tape for Tom. 
Angela awoke to find Ted making coffee in their little hotel room – their bags packed and ready to continue on.  He handed her a cup and in the light of day her decision seemed so right and so wrong at the same time.  Jack was not there and a part of her heart was missing.   “We have to go back and get Jack,” she announced out loud with a volume that surprised both of them.  “Tom is going to fight us tooth and nail on that one hon-“ replied Ted knowing Tom Bronson as he did. The guy played for keeps and he was not about to let both his wife and son just walk out the door without a fight - that crazy asshole might just resort to making his point with a gun.  Angela would not be deterred.  “Maybe if I could meet with Claire – Jack’s Nana beforehand and explain – maybe we might have a chance,” she said hopefully.   “The roads in on are pretty icy. Why don’t we wait a few days? The weather report says both I-20 and 285 are bad.”   “I just can’t rest until I can talk to Jack directly – I’m afraid that Tom will turn him against me, please Ted – we need to go back.”  Ted knew there was no sense in arguing.  He had all-weather tires on his truck and knew how to drive in the ice but still it felt like it was a really bad idea.  Angela picked up the phone and called Nana and asked her bring Jack and meet her and Ted at the Silver Spoon around 6:00 p.m.  
Nana got off the phone with Angela and walked into the living room where Jack was watching his Saturday morning Creature Features on channel 51.  “Jack, for dinner, why don’t we go to the Silver Spoon – my treat.”  Jack smiled – the movies last night and going out to dinner tonight – things were looking up.  “What about Dad?” he asked cautiously.  “Your father can fend for himself tonight,” said Nana hoping that her son would not show up by chance.   She did not want to tell Jack his mother would be there just in case Angela lost her nerve and didn’t show up.
Ted and Angela finished their breakfast at the Waffle House and headed back to Dawsonville even though there were ice warnings.   The roads were bleak and sleek but Angela would not be deterred – she had to see her son and plead with Nana to turn him over.   The mood in the car was tense, not because Ted didn’t want Angela to see Jack again but because the road conditions were getting steadily worse.   There seemed to be a thick haze on the road as sleet fell softly.   Ted kept his speed under the limit but a big semi that had been tail gating for the last few miles decided to pass them only to jack knife in front of their car.  Ted hit the brakes and put out his arm to catch Angela just as they made impact.   The sound of screeching tires, breaking glass and crunching metal was the last thing that Angela heard before she lost consciousness. 
Angela woke up with a start – she was in her mother-in-law’s guest room cuddling next to her son who was crying into his Pup-Pup.  “Jack – it’s Mom – I’m here- it’s okay.”  Jack didn’t acknowledge her.  “Jack- it’s okay, Mommy is here.  I love you Jack – please say something!”   Nana appeared in the doorway – in a dress of all things.   She walked over to Jack and hugged him.    She handed him a suit and helped him get into it.  They didn’t talk – not a word.  Jack just looked at the Ghost Buster poster as his grandmother put his suit jacket on and clipped on a dark stripped tie.  “Hey, Jack – I know you’re mad at me – but please – say something, baby – I love you – please!”  
Angela went over to Claire.  “You turned him against me?!   What the hell Claire – I know you didn’t like me but to make him ignore me – Jesus Christ woman – look at me!”  Angela shouted.   Jack and Nana just walked by and didn’t say a word.
A bright light hit Angela’s eyes and she was standing at a graveside where she saw Jack, his Nana Claire and Tom standing with some friends and neighbors.  Tom was swaying – which some took for mourning but Angela knew it was because he was drunk.   She ran over to Jack – her 14 year old little man who looked so much older and sad.  She held him close and for a second she felt like she had gotten through but she realized his Nana was holding him up.   The minister finished his prayer and threw some dirt into the grave as Claire tossed in a red rose.  Jack threw in his mother’s favorite flower – a yellow and pink peace rose.   Tom just looked at the grave and threw in more dirt.   Angela tried to talk to her husband.  “Tom, I know you’re angry but don’t take it out on Jack.  I did love you once but our world changed and you lost hope.  I tried to make it work but –“  “Tom, are you coming?” asked Claire as she got into her Blue Buick with Jack in the back- tears streaming down his face.  “Hey boy, don’t you cry for your mama, SHE left us- she LEFT us- she left US!“ Tom slurred as he got in the car.  Angela tried to flag them down but they kept driving.  Tom threw out a piece of paper as they went by. 
Angela opened what looked like a program and realized the memorial service was for her.  “What – no- that’s impossible?!  I’m walking around – I’m alive!” Her mind reeled when she saw Ted – limping on crutches with a black eye.  “Oh my God, Ted what happened to you? Where are we?”   Ted looked and the grave, let go of his crutches and fell to his knees.  “I should have told you no – I should have made you wait until the roads were better – but I could never say no to you and now you’re gone – I loved you Angie and I always will.”   Angela closed her eyes and silently screamed.
When she opened them – she was back in her home as her husband, her mother-in-law and son returned from her funeral.   Tom went to the refrigerator and got a beer and offered Jack one.  “Here you go, boy- you might as well start now –“ Nana walked in and immediately snatched the beer out of Jack’s hands.  “C’mon Mother, the boy needs a little liquid courage – “ Tom chuckled and stumbled out into the living room.  “Goddam crochet – where’s my hunting knife? I’m going to cut these fucking blankets to shreds!”   “No Dad, it’s all I have left of her,” pleaded Jack. 
Nana walked up to her son and looked at him face to face.   “Hear me now Tom, you have a right to be upset, angry, betrayed – all that.  But I swear to God as my witness if you do not get yourself together for Jack’s sake – I will sue for total custody – do you read me?”  Tom knew from the look on his mother’s face that she meant business.   Angela felt a little sigh of relief.  She’d had a hard time getting along with her mother-in-law in life but she never doubted how much she loved Jack – it was the one thing they had in common.   Jack stood in the doorway of the kitchen trying to hold back tears because his father hated the weakness that crying showed.   “Jack, you’re going to stay with me for a while  - we need to give your father some time to adjust, we’ll get your things later.”   Tom sat motionless on the couch – staring straight ahead.  Jack hoped he’d put up a little bit of a fight showing that he wasn’t going to let go of his son that easily but he sat there glassy eyed and silent.   Jack gathered up a few of the crocheted blankets that were folded neatly in the corner.  He and Nana walked out the front door and let the screen door slam as they left. 
Angela looked at her husband and tried to remember what she had first seen in him.  It was the poet, the kindness, the way he protected her.  She wanted Jack to have those same qualities.   Tom got up and found his hunting knife – he started to pick up the multi-colored blanket on the couch – the one she
made when they were first married and started to cut it.  Angela’s anger started to rise.  She ran over to stop him and knocked over their wedding photo which was on the TV.   Tom looked up – “Damn right – “ he walked over and smashed the frame with his foot.   Angela anger turned to pure rage – she knocked over a trophy Tom had won for sharp shooting. “What the fuck?!”  Buoyed by her new abilities and feeling the need for payback, she started to knock more things over – knick nacks, books on the shelves, hunting magazines.  “Hey, Mother - Jack – knock this shit off – it’s not funny!”  Tom declared hoping his mother and son would show themselves as sick pranksters they were but there was nothing – it was clear he was all alone. 
Tom stumbled back into the kitchen.  He got a glass and heard the sound of running water.  He looked to see the knob on the faucet turning by itself.   He dropped his glass and then saw the upper cabinet open.  The plates started to fly out.  Angela was striking back in a way she never could have when she was alive.   Tom dove under the table and felt like he was under attack.  The porcelain was shattering around him and he was shaking under the table.  His wife could feel his terror and felt vindicated because he now knew what it was like to fear someone who could turn on you in an instant.  Then she heard something that surprised her.  A soul wrenching sob was coming from under the dinette from a man who shunned tears.   He was rocking back and forth – looking like an old man and a young child at the same time.   Angela sat next to him.  His eyes were wild and any second he could literally loose his mind.  Payback was one thing but permanent dementia was another.   She put her hand in his and he started to calm down.   “I miss my Angie girl –“  Tom had not called her that since before he left for Vietnam.   “I miss what we could have had- I miss the man I was – I’m so sorry babe –so I’m sorry!”  He closed his eyes and sobbed.
Angela put her arm around her husband out of instinct.  His rocking stopped – he opened his eyes and he looked around.  “Angie?”  he asked hopefully – praying this whole ordeal had been a drunken stupor and not reality.   But the fact that his wife was truly gone was setting in.  He got up from under the table and surveyed the broken dishes.  “How the hell?” he said still trying to comprehend it.   He started to get another beer but the refrigerator would not open – Angela was keeping it closed.   Tom started to feel sick and ran into the bathroom past the sink and the mirror.  As he was throwing up in the toilet- the hot water to the shower came on.   Tom reached for a towel and tried to turn the water off but it would not budge.  He went over to the sink and tried to wash his face as the steam of the shower filled the room.  He looked up at the mirror and saw the impossible – letters forming as if someone was writing on the mirror.   “T – Get Help! – A”.  Tom looked around to see if someone was in the room with him but he was alone.  He looked at the mirror again and another message appeared – “I’m watching – A”   Tom screamed and ran out of the bathroom.   He got to the bedroom and locked the door.   He tried to call his mother but she and Jack had not arrived.   He felt like he was losing his mind – worse than when he was in Vietnam.   Angela took pity on him and watched as he got into bed – shaking.   She lifted the covers and put them over his shivering body.  Tom smiled, “I know you’re here – I’m sorry!”  He closed his eyes and fell asleep.   Angie sat down next to her husband wishing that he had let her see him like this – the scared warrior child.   Tom dreamt of his wife, his young son and how things should have been.   At the end of the dream – Angie came to him and spoke directly.  “Tom, you need to be a father to Jack – not a drunk – not a raging manic but the man you were supposed to be.  Please find it in yourself to love him.  Do that – or what happened in the kitchen is nothing compared to what I’m willing to do to protect our son.”  
Tom woke up with a start.   It was dark outside and he was alone.  He’d always be alone if he didn’t change.  He called his mother and asked to speak to Jack.  “Hey son, I’m sorry about today – it’s just that – I’m just sorry.” Jack listened and didn’t say anything – he wasn’t even sure it was his dad talking.  “Uh, okay dad,” he said trying to wrap his head around this change in his father.  “I’d like to come over and have dinner with you and Nana if that’s okay.” 
“Sure – come over – Nana is making sausage and potatoes – but she calls it Bangers and Mash,” Jack said excitedly.  “That sounds like your grandmother,” he chuckled.  Tom put down the phone and changed his clothes.   He went into Angie’s side of the closet and found a photo album – photos of the two of them when they started dating, their make-shift wedding and honeymoon in Savannah.  There were the photos of Jack as an infant and toddler and many of Jack and Angela from when Tom was fighting but after he got back – the pictures stopped.   Those moments were too tense and barely documented. 
Tom arrived at his mother’s 30 minutes later.  Nana and Jack seemed a bit tentative at first.  But as they waited for dinner to be ready, Tom showed Jack the pictures in the album – and talked about the time he met Angela, when he found out she was pregnant with him, some of his old poems that she had kept.  Nana looked at her son and saw the man she used to know before the war did terrible things to him.  Jack saw a man who actually wanted to be his father.   That night, they told stories about Angela who was in the corner listening – crying but feeling at peace.  Her son was safe with people who loved him.   Then something truly miraculous  happened.  On the worst night of his young life - the night of his mother’s funeral – while he and his father were talking about all the crazy things his parents did when they were young – Jack and Tom Bronson had a good laugh together.