Learning to Forgive

Fiction

Marc Ridge, Guest Contributor

This is the author’s sequel to his earlier story.

Growing up semi-poor in southern Indiana in the 1960s wasn’t so bad. My friends and I spent our time collecting empty soda bottles for money, or pulling our rickety mower around the neighborhood cutting grass for five-dollars a yard. When we were older, we cleaned out stalls at the county horse barns where our parents boarded our horses, and helped the men during the summer bailing and stacking hay.

Back then twenty-dollars bought a lot more than it does today.

I only had two close friends growing up: Jase and Michael. Michael was an only child of one of the town’s wealthiest families and Jase was one of six children whose father was the town drunk. My family was somewhere in the middle, not exactly poor, but not as well off as Michael’s. Two things brought the three of us together: Our love for horses and adventure. We certainly were not mindful of our actions, as perhaps we should have been, but never did any of us get into any serious trouble. I once asked Michael how it was that we never landed in the middle of snakes as we swung on the vines in the woods, dropping off from ten or more feet in the air into the bushes below. His answer was somewhat cryptic: “I don’t know, man. Maybe we all have some supernatural forces looking out for us.” Then I saw his eyes twinkle, and not for the first time my blood froze beneath his steady gaze.

In the years following the time the government took our classmate Lloyd away from his mother, my friends and I began spending time with one of the girls from that same class.

Jenna had been sent home from school because the nurse had found lice in her hair. Although some of the other kids in the class made fun of her and Lloyd, I thought she was pretty in a modest way. By eighth grade I started dating her, informally, and we continued our relationship on and off until graduating from high school.

After high school, my friends and I found ourselves going in different directions. Michael headed to the west coast for college someplace in Washington state, Jenna moved to New York City for a fresh start, and I took classes at a college in the deep south. Jase stayed in Noble, Indiana, where he eventually became a well-known building contractor.

For nearly twenty-seven years, we saw little of each other—none of us spoke about Lloyd or Jenna. Both seemed to disappear from our knowledge.

Then came the news of Jase’s death.

I spent the evening before Jase’s funeral with Michael and Jenna at Michael’s parent’s house where we ate pizza, drank beer, and sang old songs honoring the memory of our long-time childhood friend.  Early in the morning, around four or so, after the friendly neighborhood police came by to share a beer and remind us to keep the noise to a low roar, I drove Jenna to the mortuary to pick up her car.  We sat in my GTX—the same one I bought from Michael after his girlfriend Caitlyn died back in 1969—and for a time we talked about our lives, and our one-time love for each other.  Although she’d aged well, there was a sadness in her tired eyes that I could not reach or understand.  Perhaps it was because of dreams deferred or lost, or forgotten.  I don’t know.  In a way, I still had feelings for her I dared not expose, because we were both married.

“So, did you find her?”  she asked as we stood beside her rental car, holding hands and trying to part, but neither of us wishing to go.

“Who?”  I asked.

“Your one true love, of course, silly.”  I still loved the way she tilted her head back to laugh.  How many times had I kissed her neck, still strong and firm?  I almost kissed her then.

I simply told her that I was married to a wonderful woman, and that yes, we were very much in love with each other.

“That’s good.”  She lowered her eyes, not even hiding the tears.  “I will miss Jase.  He used to write to me when no one else did.  His letters helped me through a lot of tough times.  He even sent me some money one time when I was about to lose my apartment….”

All we could do was hold each other.  Life had once again made its way from the end back to the beginning.

“You’re always on my mind, no matter who I’m seeing,” she said, giving me a kiss on the lips that I could not return. “I guess a girl never forgets her first love.  But, you always did seem to be…someplace else.”

Her last words cut me like an accusation.  The only girl who had ever been on my mind was Sabon.  And always will be.  I think Jenna had known that all along.

“Guess I’ll see you at the funeral then.” She slid into her car and drove slowly away as I stood stiff legged watching.

It was early, and I was in no mood to go back to my parent’s home where I’d sleep in my old room, tossing and turning on the bed remembering, so I decided to drive over to the Steer Restaurant and have breakfast.

I walked into the restaurant and took a seat at the counter where my dad and I used to sit while he flirted with the waitresses.  A pretty, if not sad, Becky placed a cup of coffee before me.

“Hey you. Sorry to hear about Jase. He did a lot of good things for Noble.”

“Hi Becky,” I said, “How are you these days?”

“Oh, the usual, married, four kids, a husband who drinks too much….” She tried to smile, brushing back her bushy red hair going gray. “I’ve read your books.” There were tears in her eyes as she said, “So much has changed.”

I flipped through my tattered notebook.  I’ve written a lot of stories over the years, the first one way back in sixth grade. Even so, something odd tugged at the back of my mind as if saying, “You’re not finished with Noble yet.”

When I went to visit Cassandra the day before, she’d told me Michael was in town. I asked her how she knew.  “I felt his presence when he arrived.” Then she looked at me with those deeply knowledgeable brown eyes and said, “Soon, it will be time to reveal what has been hidden in shadow too long, but not yet. I see you at your cabin near a lake, a broken bond that should not be broken. Three visitors…” then she stopped and raised an eyebrow, “one friend and two strangers, but one of them, not a stranger.” I can’t be sure, but I thought I saw a hint of a smile on her lips.

Cassandra was still spooky.

Becky brought me a western omelet with a side of crisp hash browns. As I ate, my thoughts began churning with memories. Jase’s death brought all our childhood memories rushing to the surface like a dam bursting from high explosives. In one moment, I was in kindergarten, the theater, Sugar Creek Cemetery, in the GTX racing Michael in his T-Bird and Jase in his Roadrunner down back roads, galloping horses and jumping downed trees, holding Jenna as Jase screamed while holding Tippy, and watching in horror as Caitlyn….

“Jenna said you might be here.”

I turned around.  Behind me, with his hands in his pockets and a look of depressed happiness on his face, was someone I didn’t know, but who looked familiar.  In a far corner, another waitress with bushy brown hair stopped in mid-motion as she wiped a table, turned and winked at me.  Before I could step off my stool and confront her, she disappeared rapidly into the back.  The man touched me on the arm gently to get my attention.

“Please.  I need a few moments of your time.  May I join you?”

He stuck out his hand and said pleasantly, “I’m sorry.  Lloyd Johnson, we attended sixth grade together.”

“Lloyd?”  I gazed into his eyes with sudden recognition.  “Of course, yes, I remember you.  Have a seat.”

Lloyd, dressed in a gray Armani suit, took the stool next to me.  He didn’t say anything for a few minutes, then looked up, staring like he used to in class, into the mirror behind the counter.

“I love Jenna more than anyone else I’ve ever known.  She insisted we come to Jase’s funeral, even though I knew what that would mean.”  He closed his eyes and said tiredly, “Michael’s here, isn’t he?”

I raised an eyebrow.  Lloyd smiled, and said, “It’s okay, I’m not going to make any trouble.  I love Jenna too much.  I know that what happens will only be out of her love for him, and you and Jase.”

Lloyd suddenly seemed like Cassandra—that is, spooky. But I let him talk without interruption. I could always tell when someone had a story, and I knew his would be important. I reached inside my jacket pocket and deftly switched on the micro-recorder I always carried. I didn’t want to ‘bug’ Lloyd like this was Watergate or something. But I felt Lloyd was about to reveal something important for all of us. I wanted a record for later.

“Nothing is more important than true love.  I’m sure you would agree.”  He sipped his coffee.  “My parents, at least my father, never understood that. At least, I don’t think he did.”

As he talked, a faraway look came over his features and I could tell he was in the past.

“I was in fourth grade when they split up. It was messy. My mother, god rest her weary soul, was a saint. She walked me to school every day, brought me my lunch and sat with me as I ate, never speaking, just watching me eat my tuna sandwich and smiling. After school, we’d walk to the park near our house on Capus Street in Indianapolis and watch as I’d swing or play kickball with my friends from school. Then we’d walk home holding hands, and she’d give me two cookies and a large glass of cold milk.”

“My father was a heavy drinker.  He often came home drunk, and accused my mother of carrying on affairs with other men. He was forty and she was barely twenty-four. Whenever they fought, I hid under my sheets, and cried and prayed for him to stop hitting her. They lived in a small town in Kentucky, called Liberty, and got married when she was fourteen after he got her pregnant. Soon after their marriage, they moved to Indy to start fresh. However, my Dad—may he be forgiven—didn’t trust her because she was young. He asserted his authority by beating her. How she stood it for so long, I’ll never know.

“One night, he came home and started yelling at her like always, and slapping her face, calling her a slut. Well, somehow, I found my courage and grabbed my baseball bat. I hit him hard in the leg, but he spun around, took the bat away from me and broke my arm. As I lay on the flooring crying and bleeding, my mother hit him over the head with a lamp.

“There was a lot of screaming going on, and I was sure the neighbors must have heard.  How he stayed on his feet, I don’t know.  He wrestled my mother to the floor and began beating her. The front door was open. My mother fought her way free and ran outside screaming. I guess the police officer who arrived with his partner must have been a rookie, because when he saw my father chasing my mother with the baseball bat he shot him. They took us to the hospital and after a few days released us.

“Mom started drinking a lot. After the divorce, money was getting tight. My father was in jail and couldn’t pay child support or alimony. By the end of fifth grade, we lost our house and we moved here. She took a job working the swing shift here and would sometimes bring strange men home with her. I’d pretend to be asleep, and after they went into the bedroom, I’d go outside and sit on the stoop or walk around downtown. I figured she was getting lonely. She was always talking about how we didn’t have any money, cursing my father for everything, even her drinking. Sometimes, I’d pour her liquor down the sink, but she’d find out and hit me. The next day, she’d apologize saying she wasn’t in control of her actions and she’d never hit me again. I wanted to run away, but I loved my mother too much and she’d already been through so much pain. So I stayed.

“One night, Sheriff Brown found me and warned my mother that if things didn’t change that I’d be taken away from her. The rest you know. I found my mother a year ago. She was in prison again and sick from breast cancer. She was so thin and frail, so I didn’t recognize her. She died in my arms in the prison infirmary.”

I didn’t know what to say.  However, I did wonder what all the talk about his parents, enlightening as it was, had to do with myself, Michael or Jenna.

“So, you see,” he continued, “that’s why I understand Jenna so well. In some ways, she is like my mother used to be.” He sipped his coffee, staring into the mirror.  “I love her. She’s my one true love. Jealousy destroyed my parents and our family. I refuse to let it ruin mine. That’s why I’m leaving after the funeral, and Jen is staying on a few days. She needs to get something out of her system. After that, I’ll have my wife back, and our lives will be better.”

I was stunned.  Any other man would be furious, but Lloyd, knowing his wife might be unfaithful, still had faith in her.  Seeing my confusion, he laughed. Lloyd tossed five dollars on the counter and smiled at me.

“Jen is really a remarkable woman, but until she lets go of the past, she’ll never be truly, free.”  Without waiting for my reply, Lloyd walked away.

I paid Becky for my meal, leaving a five-dollar tip, and took a long drive. Everything in town looked smaller. After visiting the Sugar Creek Cemetery and placing flowers on Caitlyn and Tippy’s graves, I cruised over to the Noble Slums and parked on the side of the street. The duplexes had been refurbished, but basically looked the same. I walked around Crescent and Francis streets, stopping in front of our old houses, and a sign that read, Jason Hoag Building & Remodeling, remembering.

In the summer, the Mister Frosty Ice Cream truck, a big blue and white van with a curly vanilla cream cone on top, would cruise the neighborhoods. Michael, Jase, and I—along with the other kids in the neighborhood—would buy ice cream sandwiches, or popsicles that dripped cherry and banana flavors onto our hands making them sticky. We would sit on the curb, eating ice cream, joking, and feeling like we’d never grow old.

As I stood on the corner of our streets, my hands in my pockets and the wind blowing my hair, I heard the voice of a child yelling, “Dang it, Michael, Jase, wait up will ya!” Spinning around, I thought someone, or some thing, punched me in the arm, and I heard a voice in a sharp Kentucky accent say, “Yo, man, wake up!”

Turning again I heard the roar of dual exhaust and saw two cars—one a metallic green GTX and the other a black Roadrunner—careen around the corner and disappear in the distance.

“Hey mister,” a tiny voice across the street yelled, “you lost?”

Yes, I thought, smiling and waving to a kid in worn out blue jeans, dirty sneakers and a mangy blue muscle shirt, his long unkempt brown hair blowing, and smiling with partially rotten teeth.  The kid waved back.  Then turned and walked towards the back yard of one of the duplexes.

I walked back down the street, got into the GTX, and drove away.