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Absent with Leave

Photo by Kristin Hardwick on StockSnap. CC0/Public domain.

“I have stuff to do,” said Jordan.

“It won’t hurt you to be a few minutes late,” Mom said, ostensibly blocking Jordan at the kitchen door. “So you can discuss this new development with me?”

“Well, it might inconvenience the people I’m supposed to be working with,” said Jordan. “Have you considered that?”

Mother looked ready to cry again. For the past eight days since they received the call, she – by far the strongest person in the family – had either wept outright or had been on the verge of weeping at the smallest thing. Such as, all of a sudden, caring about the cat pissing on the welcome mat when she’d done it a hundred times before, like screaming when Kelsie demanded exact change for her Pre-K fundraiser, like whining at Dad for bringing home merlot when she’d plainly asked for shiraz. Jordan felt like shit knowing what her Mother must be going through, but Jordan was seventeen, and her issues were important, too.

“It’s only practice,” Mom said.

“Practice makes perfect, you always say.”

She smiled gamely. “Smart ass. But, you’ll be here when he … when …he …”

“When he gets here, Mom. It’s okay to say it. Go on, say it, it’s easy …. go on … open your mouth like so … ‘when he gets here’… c’mon, you can do it.”

She went too far.

Mom’s eyes dove into her hands, and her shoulders jerked as she sobbed. Jordan put her arms around her, and she was shocked all over again at the electric power in that small body. She pulled tighter lest her mother shake away completely.

“Ah, c’mon, Mom. I gotta go.”

“Go then, go. Go, sister smartass.”

Jordan had just too damn much on her plate to be troubled with this new shit. She was running late to Baccalaureate practice where, as vice-president of senior class, she was supposed to introduce the guest speaker. Then there was the ‘Dad and Grad Brunch’ at ten. Plus Tanner kept bugging her about the prom – he wanted to double up with Ryan and Samantha – and she wanted to go on their own in Tanner’s car. They hadn’t discussed the double-XL gorilla looming between them: the fact they both knew and were mutually scared shitless that he was more than ready to hit the old proverbial ‘homerun.’ Plus, there was the slight matter of deciding whether she was going to accept the full schollie at City College or take a big gamble as a ‘preferred walk-on’ at OSU.

Dad could have solved this whole thing. One timely word here or there could’ve made the difference.

Mom felt the same way. “Why can’t you and Jordan just go meet him at the café?” she implored last night. “Buy him lunch for crying out loud? Give us some space, y’know, to get this all worked out.”

“You know we can’t do that, Hon,” Dad said.

“Sure you can.”

“He is family. He needs to come to our home. Kelsie and Bradley should see him. My children need to know their Uncle Joe.”

“Not if you hadn’t built him up so, they needn’t.”

“How could I not?”

“Maybe.”

“Had to.”

Dad waited in the truck when Jordan finally came out. “Mom?” he asked.

“Yeah. She’s real upset.”

“Of course.”

They drove to the First Presbyterian Church.

“Thanks for coming with me,” Jordan said.

Dad pulled into the parking space reserved for the pastor. “Wouldn’t have missed it.”

Neither of them make an effort at opening a door.

Dad said, “I mean it, Jordan, when I say your mother and I will support whichever you decide to do. Of course, it would be easier on us if you went to City. Plus, you’d be guaranteed to play, and you’d be close to Tanner and us. But, then again, you’ve dreamed of being a Cowgirl since you were in Youth League.”

“I would be like eighth-team on the depth chart if I went there.”

“Yup. Certainly you would. Starting out. But you’ve always been the underdog, and you’ve never let that hold you back. The thing I’m most proud about you.”

“Thanks, Dad.”

Dad tossed his key chain in the air and caught it in his big hand without looking. He and his brother Joe had been twin tight ends on the state runner-up team: Joe a senior and Dad only a sophomore. Joe the blocker, and Dad the ‘go-to’ receiver. Both made first-team All Conference. Their pictures were framed, and hung in the new trophy case Jordan passed every day.

With exquisite timing, Dad snagged Jordan’s eye as she turned. “How much do you remember about him?”

She didn’t answer right away. She adjusted her head slightly to lessen some of the angle of his stare. “More than I realized, actually. I can still hear his voice. I can see his shape; he was big, like you, and he carried me in his arms all the time. I remember him trying to explain to me what it meant for him to be deployed. Funny, though, I don’t see his face.”

“It’s tough.”

“I remember the day you told us he wasn’t coming home. Like it was yesterday.”

“That’s what they told us. That’s all we had to go on. We waited and waited and then. It just happened.”

“You guys. You and Mom couldn’t have known, Dad. No way. Love is none of your guys’ fault.”

“I know. Still.” He studied the keys in his hand. “You must have thought about this a lot.”

“Aw. Not that much. Like everybody else, I guess I just thought of him as passed away. I don’t remember if I cried. It will be weird.”

“Weird for all of us.”

“Mom the most. She is really beating herself up.”

Dad shook his head slowly, never removing his eyes from the side of her head. “Your mother’s a warrior. Don’t let the softness and the tears fool you. Woman-Girls are a hardier breed. She’ll be fine once this all gets worked out.”

“Worked out? That’s what you call it?”

“Well. Yeah. I’m afraid it’s the best I got. Right now.”

“What do you think he’s gonna do?”

“Oh, I expect he’ll take it in stride, too. The way he handles everything. Steady Joe ever body called him. He was our hero. I suspect that attitude kept him alive in the caves and other shit holes they drug him in and out of all this time.”

“Okay Dad, fine. But what I really mean is, do you think he’s going to stick around here in town? I mean this is his home, too. His town, too. Or is he going to try to live somewhere else?”

“I don’t know, sweetheart. I don’t know. That’s hard to say. He probably doesn’t know either. He’s been through worse than hell I suspect. And, I can’t imagine this, the family situation, is going to be very pleasant for him.”

“How do you feel, Dad?”

“Me? Numb. I guess. I feel extremely weird. He’s my big brother; he always had my back. I love him. And, I know he will love me … love us, y’know … when he finds out. How about you? You haven’t weighed in, Jordan. You want him to stick around or what?”

“I think he ought to be able to stay anywhere he wants. You said it. He’s a goddamn hero.”

“You didn’t answer the question.”

“Dad. Man, I got so much to think about here.”

“Jordan, I hate to be the one to tell you, but you are not the first kid ever to graduate high school.”

“Fine.” She opened the door. “I’ll be the asshole, then. ‘Uncle’ Joe should move away. That’s what I think. Not so far away he can’t visit on Thanksgiving, but he shouldn’t live here again. I am going to go to State, and when I come home, I will go see him. Spend the time with him. I hate to be mean, but I don’t think he should live here again. It would be so stupid awkward. Do you think this is mean?”

Dad smiled for the first time in a week. “Okay, Jordan. No. It is not mean. You’ve made up your mind.” He opened his door. “And, I don’t think you have to worry. Joe will do the right thing. He always does.”


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