Jackson’s first reaction to the phone ringing was one of pure annoyance. Music had been blasting in his car as he flew down I-95, and the call had come just before his favourite verse. He was already in an uneasy mood after a not-so-great visit with Mindy in Jersey. He grabbed his phone off the empty passenger seat and checked the caller ID.
Jackson maintained a cordial but not quite regular correspondence with his mother these days. Ever since he’d graduated from college and opted to move to the Big Apple instead of back home to Virginia, their relationship had been colder, more acquaintance than family. But still, it was not out of the ordinary for an acquaintance to make an occasional call when there was news to be shared, so Jackson thought nothing of it. He tried to think of the last time they’d spoken but could not remember. The phone rang on as Jackson merged to his right. Traffic had begun to slow in the approach to the George Washington Bridge. Before Jackson could decide whether he would answer, the ringing ceased, and the music resumed where it had left off.
Jackson relaxed back into his seat as Kurt Cobain prepared to enter his third verse in The Man Who Sold the World. Cobain had barely gotten started, and Jackson’s mind had already drifted into how he liked the Nirvana cover of this song far more than the original David Bowie version, and away from the unpleasant thought of a conversation with his mother. His moment of serenity was interrupted by the familiar ring. Jackson cursed out loud to himself as he reached for the phone.
‘Jack, I have to talk to you.’
Jackson cursed internally this time. The traffic had worsened, and he was not in the mood.
‘Yeah, just make it quick. I’m late getting somewhere,’ he lied.
‘It’s your father. He had another heart attack. We’re at the hospital now. They don’t know if he’s going to make it.’ Jackson could hear her crying despite a noble effort at disguising it. He didn’t say anything back for a moment and the line was silent.
‘Jack? Are you there?’
‘The first was minor. I didn’t want to worry you with it.’
‘A minor heart attack?’
‘When was this?’ Jackson barked back at her over the phone. He now sat in a standstill near the bridge, with a clear view of the city in all its glory.
‘About a year ago,’ his mother responded. Jackson felt a wave of emotions flow over him. He certainly knew his relationship with his father was strained; he had never shied away from admitting that. But this seemed to Jackson to be the type of matter that warranted an alert to all members of the family, no matter how far removed. He hadn’t been able to process this much information all at once. The supposed unwritten rules of family decorum were not something he had spent much time considering, and therefore he hadn’t had very much of an opinion. As he wondered whether he had any right to be angry, he stared ahead and said nothing. The traffic wasn’t helping his mood.
‘Jack, I want you to come see him. He might not make it.’
Jackson still had nothing to say back. He wasn’t sure if being angry was within his rights, but he knew the feeling growing in his stomach all too well. He knew if he stayed on the phone much longer, this cordial conversation ran the risk of becoming decidedly less so. Blowing up on his father had always been one thing; in his mind, his father had deserved it. However, Jackson figured himself a decent man, and thought decent men shouldn’t yell at their mothers, even when they deserve it. He’d always thought that and mostly followed it.
‘What hospital?’ he asked her as calmly as possible.
‘UVA. So, you’ll come? That’s wonderful, Jack.’
‘Jack. This could be it. I’m serious.’
‘I’ll let you know, okay?’
‘I’ve got to go.’ He didn’t wait for her response to hang up. The traffic had finally started to cross the bridge. Nirvana came back over his speakers. They had sounded better before the call.
Jackson returned to his studio apartment in Manhattan. The walls were a dull, peeling grey and he hadn’t added any furniture beyond his couch and desk in years. He wouldn’t have had the space if he had wanted to. The last addition had been a TV about five years before, but Jackson had long since disposed of it as it significantly slowed his writing process. He was glad to be out of the car and able to move at his own speed, no longer reliant on the endless line of cars progress to create room for his own. It had been a long day with Mindy even before he’d received the news of his father’s potential demise. She had finally dropped the big question on him, one that he’d seen building in her for about a year now.
Would you move to New Jersey with me?
It wasn’t that he didn’t love her. He really did. But New Jersey? With the hub of civilisation in America a ninety-minute drive away? He just couldn’t do it. The city had been there for him when he left home. It was there for him when his dad told him how disappointed he was in him. His dad was always hard on him. He wanted him to work for the family landscaping business. It had grown rather large, and Jackson had been offered a key marketing role as soon as he received his degree in English. When he turned it down, his father had taken it personally. It wasn’t. But now Jackson wouldn’t work for his father for all the money in the world. It wasn’t that he hated his father – at least Jackson had never thought so. It was that his father had never understood him, and, at some point, he had gotten tired of waiting so went out to find people who would. If he had thought his father could understand this information, he’d have gladly told him.
Jackson would never forget the day he told his father of his plan to move to the city and follow his dream rather than handle the mindless office work of the uber repetitive family business. It was just getting hot for the summer in Virginia. He couldn’t tell if he was sweating due to his own nerves or the humid outdoors. He’d caught his father a couple of beers deep at the neighbour’s barbeque – as good a time as any, he had figured. He hadn’t expected this news to go over well, and in this case, Jackson was absolutely correct.
What does New York have on Virginia?
Don’t you realise you’re turning your back on your family?
What kind of a man wants to write plays? There’s no money in that!
They hadn’t spoken since he had left home. That was seven years ago this May.
Jackson had been perfectly content to keep it that way, and even the possibility of his father’s impending death didn’t sway his feelings much. Jackson wondered if this made him heartless, or perhaps a bad person; or maybe he was being too hard on himself.
Jackson decided he should call Mindy. They hadn’t left it well earlier. He stared out the window as the phone rang in his ear. He loved this view of the city, even half-obscured by the building next door and not overlooking anything particularly exciting. He’d looked out this window many a good and bad occasion alike. It had grown to be a comfort for him. He liked that this view of the city was his, and his alone.
‘Hello.’ He thought she sounded angry, but he often struggled to read her tone, even after three years together.
‘Can I help you?’
‘Don’t be like that.’
‘Be like what, Jackson? I don’t know how long you expect me to be able to do this for. I’m at the end of my rope.’
‘You could come here.’
‘Jackson. You know I can’t leave here. My residency won’t transfer elsewhere.’
‘It isn’t that much longer.’
‘You know that isn’t true,’ she said. He did know.
‘I can’t leave the city. My work is here,’ he said. She remained silent on the other line for a moment, and he knew she was choosing her words carefully. This was a touchy subject.
‘You can write anywhere, Jackson.’
‘I won’t get anything sold elsewhere.’
‘You haven’t gotten anything published there. It’s been seven years.’
He gripped the phone tighter as her honesty cut into his heart.
‘It’s really more about selling than publishing in the theatre industry.’
‘You aren’t doing either.’
‘You don’t get it. This city is where people make it. Where people like me make it.’
‘Why are you calling me then, Jackson?’ she said. He thought about telling her about his father, as he had intended. As he gathered the courage, he realised there was no point. She’d never met him anyways. What would she care? He’d deal with it alone.
‘Nothing, Mindy. I was just checking on you.’
‘You don’t have to do that.’
‘Noted,’ he said, with a tinge of sadness. She hung up without another word. He wondered if that meant his relationship was over. He wondered if the last thing he would ever say to Mindy was ‘noted’.
He looked down at the street and saw the nighttime crowd starting to show themselves. Looking at the time, he decided to reserve judgement on a trip to Virginia until he had a couple of drinks in him. He walked through his kitchen, which also served as his laundry room and living room, grabbed his coat off the singular hook upon the wall, and headed out into the city of strangers to seek comfort.
Jackson hadn’t returned to his apartment until the early hours of the morning. He’d found himself in with a large group of people whose names he would not remember, and together they’d had a night they all wished they could. It had only taken Jackson a few drinks to forget all about his father and his faulty heart.
He woke around noon with a horrific headache. He was fully clothed, and he was sore all over. He was getting rather old to be out that late, he thought. He wished he could remember the names of his acquaintances from last night, and checked his phone to see if he had gotten any of their numbers. He hadn’t. When he gathered himself, he stood by the window, drinking a cup of coffee. The best view in all the city, he thought. My view. All mine. His trance was broken by the buzzing of his phone. A text, not a call, to his relief. He dug through his sheets and pulled his phone from their depths.
The text was from his Uncle John on his father’s side. He had never been close to John, but he had never held any ill will against him either. ‘Sorry to hear about your dad, kid, he loves you and I know he’s proud of you. Praying he pulls through.’ Jackson half scoffed at the text. He noticed an attachment at the bottom of the message and clicked it. A picture of Jackson as a young child, no more than eight or nine, appeared. On either side of him were his parents, smiles wide as he’d ever seen.
Jackson was smiling too. In his father’s arms was another boy, six or seven, very much resembling Jackson. Jackson remembered this picture. It was at Uncle John’s house. Fourth of July? No, St Patrick’s Day? Who knows. What he really remembered was that this was the year before his younger brother died. Jackson didn’t talk about Harrison often. It was too hard. His parents couldn’t talk about it either. The grief had often been the only thing the three of them had in common as Jackson was growing up. It was something not many were able to understand. A grief never spoken of, but ever present in their lives. The picture hung on the screen as the phone grew heavier and heavier in his hand.
Much like he had done the night before, Jackson grabbed his coat off the hook and hurried out the door. This time he headed to the next-door parking garage, got in his car, and started south. He called his mother and told her he had finished his business the night before so now he would come. She was elated.
He drove straight through without stopping until he needed to fill up his gas tank, and when he did that, he did it with deliberate quickness. He was nearly entering Virginia by nightfall. Jackson hadn’t listened to music on his trip down much, but when he saw the ‘You Are Now Entering Virginia’ sign, he relaxed a bit and plugged his phone in. After a few skips he came to The Man Who Sold the World and decided to let it play, especially after his tumultuous listen the day prior. He thought about how maybe he should have told Mindy. He wondered if it was too late now. He was sure it wasn’t. After all, it had been years. People fight. He decided he would call her when he got back from Virginia. It could wait. She would probably have calmed down by then.
As Cobain prepared to break into his next verse, Jackson heard the music stop with an ominous quickness. The phone was ringing. Maybe it was Mindy. Jackson reached down and turned his phone over.
Jackson pulled onto the shoulder and stopped the car. His head dropped. He gathered himself and took a couple deep breaths before answering the call. But he didn’t need to answer it. He already knew an acquaintance never calls without news.
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