The Alphabet Challenge: “J” Story No. 2 of 3 — “”

This is the 10th round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS post. As a refresher, the Broxson twins, Gary and Perry, and I will each write one story for each letter of the alphabet. Meaning, a story whose title begins with the given letter. For this round, it’s the letter “J”.

Readers have until the publication of the next round of stories (about two weeks between rounds) to vote for their favorite story in the current round. Points will be assigned to each writer based on total votes received.

In each round, the story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. In the case of a tie, the points for the tied rankings are added and then split equally among the writers who tied. At the end of the year, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.

Long or short, each story will appear on its own post and the trio will be followed by a fourth post where readers can vote.

Here we go. Presented anonymously, the second of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “J” as submitted by its author.

Copyright 2020 — (Gary Broxson)

(3,559 words – approx. reading time: about 14 minutes based on 265 WPM)

“I found it. It’s the one over here with the pinwheel on it,” Lucas called out to his brother, his grandmother, and me.

“You go ahead, Jake. I want to stay here with your Pawpaw a spell longer,” Martha whispered reverently to her grandson.

“It’s alright, Jake. I’ve got her,” I said. Jacob let go of his grandmother’s hand and carefully hopscotched his way around the concrete rectangles. He met up with his brother Lucas who was standing at the foot of a much smaller grave. I steadied my mother as she closed her eyes and clutched the gold wedding band she wore on a necklace.

The brothers, my sons, Jacob and Lucas, silently read their cousin’s headstone inscription together: Jarrod Wayne Johnson, beloved son and grandson. There was also a laser image of a computer keyboard and monitor on the polished granite. Incised below that was and the dates 1 Jan 1982-1 Jan 2000. The shiny blue pinwheel beside the grave spun lazily on the cool Sunday afternoon, reflecting brilliant shards of sunlight.

Jarrod had been the first person my boys had ever known that had died. Death, however, had not diminished Jarrod in their eyes; it elevated him to near mythical heights. Jacob had been six years younger but had looked up to Jarrod as a tragic hero. Lucas only remembered Jarrod from the stories we shared on days like this.

Beside my father’s grave, lay my mother’s—waiting. “I always slept on the right side of the bed,” she whispered to me, somehow knowing through prayer-closed eyes that I was staring at it. The singular difference in the matching headstones was the unchiseled ‘to’ date after the dash on my mother’s stone. Dad had died nearly nine years ago, and mom seemed to have no expiration date in sight.

“Don’t you think that’s a bit creepy?” I asked as we stood there, mother and son.

“No,” she said, opening her eyes. “The right side of our bed was closer to the bathroom.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about and you know it,” I said, trying not to laugh in such a solemn place. “The dates…the one not there. Doesn’t it make you wonder when it will be?”

She did not answer my question. She only looked up past the breathy puffs of clouds and said, “Let’s go see how Jarrod is doing.”

I steadied her elbow as we made our way to a mossy oak where my sons were shouldered together at the foot of Jarrod’s grave site.

“Careful,” Mom admonished. “You almost stepped on Uncle Jasper.”

I guided her around the mold-darkened slab.

“That was 1955. The newspaper played out he was shot up in a deer hunting accident.” Mom chuckled. “But he actually bought a load of buckshot when Tommy Tolbert caught him creeping ‘cross his cornfield to meet up with his wife.” Mom hooked her thumb backwards, “Tina Tolbert’s buried back there.”

“I guess even these skeletons have skeletons in their closets,” I said.

“They’ve all got stories to share. As long as someone is left to remember,” Mom replied.

As the four of us gathered around Jarrod’s grave, Lucas asked the question that was on my and Jacob’s minds. “Granny, what was that sermon all about? I didn’t get it.”

As part of this annual pilgrimage, the boys and I had a script to follow. We would meet at our little hometown on a predetermined Saturday in January, converging from three different pinpoints on the map. On Sunday morning, we would dutifully bring a box of fresh-baked doughnut holes to the assisted living home where we would pick up my mother and drive to church. Afterward, we would visit with my father and Jarrod, and then go out for Chinese.

This last stop always seemed a tad macabre to me. Nine years ago, the last meal my father had eaten was from the Oriental Dragon Buffet; two hours later he had succumbed to a massive heart attack. I sometimes think that Mom is hoping to find the right combination of General Tso’s chicken, Crab Rangoons and Wonton soup that will somehow speed her soul along to her heavenly rewards and her mortal coil to the awaiting plot beside my father.

“Well, Lucas,” my mom began. “The preacher was trying to answer a question that some of the parishioners were concerned about; whether or not retarded people go to heaven or hell? We have a couple of kids with Down’s syndrome in the church and he wanted to set the record straight.”

“So what was the answer?” Lucas asked. “He kept talking in circles.”

“It took him 45 minutes to get to the root of it, but if he’s interpret’n the scriptures right, it appears there’s a loophole for the soul—God’s mercy. It seems that in death the mentally retarded and some other exceptions are dealt a get-out-of-hell free card as recompense for all their troubles in life,” my mother replied.

“Your lucky day, Downy,” Jacob said, elbowing Lucas.

“Okay, who wants to start?” my mother interrupted the boys.

Another tradition that we observe is the sharing of stories regarding Jarrod and my father. Mom says it’s the best way to always keep our loved ones with us, in our hearts.

“Tell the frog story, Granny. It’s my favorite,” Lucas said.

As we looked down at Jarrod’s grave, my mother began.

“Jarrod was a bit different from all the rest of you grandkids. As you know, he was our firstborn grandchild, begotten from your sister Glenda,” Mom said, looking at me. “May she rest in peace.”

“He was born on New Year’s Day and he came out a caterwauling. But when he quit fussin’, he opened those great big blue eyes and just looked around. There was mischief in those eyes; I could see it from the start.”

“That boy was a handful. After his momma took off, your Pawpaw and I were left to raise and rear him. After Jarrod, Glenda took the callin’ from the bible to heart, the one that says be fruitful and multiply. She became a regular whore of Babylon. That girl run off and started popping out babies like a Pez dispenser. She just didn’t have time for a child with health problems. You see, the Cystic Fibrosis had a grip on Jarrod. Had him coughing all the time and he couldn’t hardly gain any weight.

“But none of that stopped Jarrod. He was always getting into something. Like that time with the frogs.

“When he was about eight-years-old, I remember hunting for him after the Sunday evening church service. Your Pawpaw never went to night church; he figured the morning ministry was enough to punch his ticket. So it was just me, running around holler’n for that boy and it was getting dark.

“When I was just about to get scared and call for help, here he comes, up from the bog out back of the church. He was muddy and wet and his pockets were bulging with something. I asked him what in tarnation he was up to and he just smiled like one of those imps, eyes a shinin’. I told him to run inside and get cleaned up in the church lavatory before he brought those muddy shoes into my old Lincoln.

“He came back out in a few minutes and we drove on home. When I told your Pawpaw about how Jarrod had worried me half to death, he just said that boys will be boys. And that was it, until…”

“This is the part I like,” Lucas said, rubbing his palms with anticipation and against the chill.

“Wednesday night service,” my mother continued. “That’s when we always did the baptizing. After the regular preaching, Pastor Mac ducked into the side room and changed into his water robes, he called ‘em. From another room out came Sister Ezell, she had found Jesus and was now gonna get washed in the blood of the lamb. Both of them waded into the middle of the baptismal pool and Pastor Mac started imploring the lord to cleanse Sister Ezell’s putrid soul.

“Well, just when Pastor Mac went to dunk her, you’d a thunk that the devil himself had appeared to Sister Ezell. She screamed bloody murder, splashing and carrying on like a bull in a bathtub. She was a big girl and she half-drowned Pastor Mac, climbing over him to get out of the water. Someone,” my mother paused here and looked down at the grave by our feet. “Someone had filled that pool with half a dozen frogs and they were a swimmin’ and hoppin’ around to beat the band.”

We all laughed, and our breath plumed into the cold air. We had heard the story before, many times, but my mother always made us laugh with her version of it. Laughter in a cemetery might seem strange, but it sure felt right.

“My turn,” I said. “But you are going to be a hard act to follow,” squeezing my mother against me.

“I remember when Jarrod was about 13-years-old. He had been in and out of the hospital several times by then, and a couple times were touch and go. But those were the Bulls’ years and Jarrod was a big fan of Michael Jordan. I think watching MJ, those games, those championships, was something that gave him another reason to keep fighting, even though the doctors said he would never live to see eighteen.

“Well, your Pawpaw loved him some Celtics and, of course, Larry Bird, the Hick from French Lick, they called him. Every time the two teams met, Jarrod and Dad were unbearable. You would think this was the battle of the century. They talked trash to each other unmercifully before each of these games. Pawpaw would strut his Celtics number 33 jersey around for days before the game, reminding Jarrod that it was 10 points higher than Jordan’s 23, which made no sense, but it seemed to get Jarrod’s goat.

“So they made a wager. If the Celtics won, then Jarrod would have to rake the whole back yard the next weekend. If the Bulls won, then Pawpaw would have to buy Jarrod a two-liter bottle of his favorite drink, Mountain Dew.

“I remember, it was a late game and Pawpaw had already been sipping on what Jarrod called ‘Pawpaw’s Cokes’ for the first three quarters. Well, sure enough, he fell asleep in that big ol’ Lazy Boy of his, sometime in the fourth quarter. It was a close game to the buzzer, but the Celtics beat the Bulls that night.

“Now Jarrod, he was a sneaky one. He saw his opportunity and he took it. He went back to his room and dug up an old VCR tape he had made of a previous Bulls-versus-Celtics matchup. Only in this one, the Bulls had won. He plugged it in, fast-forwarded it to the finish and woke up Pawpaw with his hoot’n and holler’n. When Pawpaw saw the score and the celebration, he conceded the loss and bought Jarrod a monster bottle of Dew the next day.

“Only after drinking half the bottle and burping between each word, did Jarrod spill the beans to Pawpaw that the Celtics had really won the game and amazingly, so had he.”

“Ahhh, good one,” Jacob said. “Jarrod was always a whiz with technology,” pointing to the keyboard and computer monitor engraved on the tombstone. “Those were the early days of the internet, but he was way ahead of his time. He once showed me how to bypass the phone company and dial up random people using some backdoor computer codes. He had done it way before big phones and big internet companies got together.”

Turning to his grandmother, Jacob asked, “Didn’t Jarrod meet a lady friend on the computer, probably making him the first to go all eharmony?”

“Why, yes, he did. Victoria was her name. Ooooh, Lord, that was a mess,” my mother hooted. “That,” she said, shaking her head, “was the beginning of the end for that boy.

“Jarrod met that girl on the computer somehow. They started talking every night, long distance, but we never got a bill. Pawpaw said he had jerry-rigged the whole thing. That year he started spending hours in the bathroom, coming out with his hair all jelled up like one of those Backyard Boys singers. He was seventeen then and he had never really had a girlfriend. I suppose a boy with Cystic Fibrosis would have a hard time with the ladies.

“Anyway, these two decided to meet up. It was a Sunday morning, I remember, cuz I went to get Jarrod up for church. He was gone, and so was your Pawpaw’s red sports car—Roxanne, he called it. All he left was a note on his pillow that said something about partying like it was 1999. We didn’t know what to do, so we called the sheriff to see if they could track him down. They weren’t too interested in finding a seventeen-year-old boy, but they put out a lookout for your Pawpaw’s Corvette to make us happy.

“Sure enough, that boy met up with little Miss Victoria and they shacked up in a no-tell hotel for about a week. Those two didn’t have any money so they went off on a stealin’ spree. They got film of them walking out of Wally-World with a shopping cart full of boxes and what-not. Just walked right out like it was paid up, bold as brass and pretty as you please; all smiles for the security camera.

“They took their loot to pawn shops and got enough money for essentials, like Mountain Dew, then they moved on to another county. They weren’t no Bonnie and Clyde but sure enough, Wally-World put charges on them and the law finally got around to huntin’ for them. Their shoplifting video even made the six o’clock news.

“I was scared it was going to end badly, like those movies where they shoot up the robbers even when they are trying to turn themselves in. But then we got a call from Victoria. She introduced herself and said that Jarrod was sick; he was having trouble breathing. She said she loved him, and the way she said it, I believed her—he was easy to love.

“We told her to hold on, and me and your Pawpaw drove all night to get to them. She said they would be at a tattoo parlor on the shady side of town and gave us the address. We brought Jarrod’s nebulizer and some meds that he didn’t take along on his escapade. He didn’t look good. Had lost weight and had that raspy breathing sound that still haunts me, but his eyes were so bright, so blue. That boy had finally got to do some living, even though it had dang near killed him.

“We dropped off Victoria at her folk’s place on our way back to Pea Ridge. She was cryin’ and snottin’ all over the place, but she finally let loose of Jarrod and went on inside to face her own music.

“Thank God,” Jarrod said, after we drove off. “That girl was driving me bananas.” Then he fell off to sleep.

“Well, we got him to Sacred Heart hospital, to his usual room. This was around Christmas time and we were hoping to get some of the family together. We made the calls because we didn’t know how long he had left. He had been in the hospital a whole lot over the years but this time, according to his doctors, it was worse.

“He had some clear times during that last week. He talked to his Pawpaw about Y2K and all that nonsense that was supposed to transpire on New Year’s 2000. He wanted to see for himself what was going to happen to all the computers. He figured he could fix all that. Pawpaw assured him he would get to see the whole shebang, good or bad.

“Jarrod also told me and your Pawpaw that he didn’t want to get the tube stuck back down his throat, nor get jump-started with those paddles. He made us promise that we wouldn’t let them go hero on him if things went bad. I remember looking into your Pawpaw’s eyes, then back to Jarrod, and those baby blues, and we promised. We cried all the way home that night.

Looking at me, Mom said, “Your sister, Hurricane Glenda, blew into town the next morning. Barged right in like she was there to save the day, be Jarrod’s mother again after seventeen years of don’t bother. We all took turns during the Christmas season, sitting with Jarrod. It was not a very festive time for any of us cuz the doctors said he wouldn’t see the new year—but he held on.

“I believe that Glenda had gotten an early start on celebrating the New Year. She showed up at the hospital that evening, breathing fire. She wanted to be with her baby, she said. Wanted to make amends. She was starting to get fired up there in the visitor’s lounge when Jarrod’s monitor went flatline. Lights outside his door started flashing and crash carts started rolling in.

“As the doctors started getting set up to try and save that boy, your Pawpaw stepped in. He told’em, enough is enough, let’em be. The doctors looked at each other then set the paddles down. That’s when Glenda busted in. She was like, save my baby, save my baby. Your Pawpaw and I tried to explain to her what Jarrod had asked from us, but she wasn’t having none of it. She told the doctors that she was his momma and she held rights over his because he was a minor.

“This went back and forth while she fumbled in her purse and pulled out a driver’s license. The nurse hurried back to verify the information on the computer. After a bit, the nurse came running back and said, she’s the mother, we have to honor her wishes. Meanwhile, Jarrod lay there, white as a ghost, his bright eyes closed, real peaceful like.

“So they fired up that ‘fibulator and started clearing everyone out of the way. They pulled back Jarrod’s sheet and opened up his gown to spark his heart. And there it was, big bold print right there on his scrawny chest. The letters DNR were tattooed there. The doctors looked at each other again and backed off. That boy had covered his bases, or so we thought.

“That didn’t stop your sister, she kept at it: Save him, Glenda hollered, save him. I don’t care what he wants, I want my baby back. He’s a minor, he can’t make that decision. The doctors looked back at the nurse; she was looking at Jarrod’s chart. The nurse nodded that Glenda was right, then said Jarrod was only seventeen.

“That’s when we heard the fireworks blasting and booming outside. It was midnight, the new year had found us here at the hospital making life and death decisions. The doctors looked at the computer monitor wondering if the Y2K bug was going to shut it down, nothing for a minute, then it blipped and went flat again. Do it, Glenda demanded, do it.

“Just as one of them doctors readied to slap them paddles to Jarrod, your Pawpaw put a big hand on his shoulder and said, he’s a man now. At midnight, that boy turned eighteen. His wishes must be honored now—please, Do Not Resuscitate.

“The nurse found the birthdate on the file, did the math in her head, and said your Pawpaw was right. At eighteen, Jarrod got to make his own life and death decisions and his decree was tattooed right there on his chest. They finally shut everything down, gave Glenda a shot to calm her nerves, and then we let Jarrod go. We waited and watched as he let the last raggedy breath out, then we all held each other for a long, long time.”

As my mother finished, I pulled her closer. My boys completed the family circle and we held each other for a long, long time there in that cemetery on that cold Sunday in January.

*******                      **********                ***********

“Hey, Pawpaw, come on over to my cloud and watch the Michael Jordan documentary with me. I tapped into the ESPN series. It’s called The Last Dance and MJ gets to whoop up on Larry Bird all over again.”

“I don’t think so, Jarrod. I’m keeping an eye on your granny. I sure do miss her.”

Jarrod turned on his celestial computer and hit a lot of keys in a blur. He pulled up The Roll, an unsanctioned site that listed all incoming souls and their dates of arrival. He frowned at first, then thought about his Pawpaw and how lonely he was, even in paradise, and his eyes lit up.

“What is she up to?” Jarrod asked.

“They are all standing around your grave telling Jarrod stories. Probably getting ready for lunch at the Oriental Dragon Buffet.

“I’m sorry, Jarrod. Maybe I can join you later to watch that Jordan show.”

Or maybe, Jarrod thought, the three of us can watch it together.

The End

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