Marti's Theory

Jack

Posted on: March 30, 2009

“See, this is where they made the incision.”

Emma tried to avoid direct eye contact with the bloated white belly proudly thrust into her line of vision.

“Uh yeah, I see. You can put your shirt down before a customer comes in, okay, Jack?”

Not really hearing her, he continued his story of recent surgical adventures. A burly middle-aged man with a booming voice, Jack seemed more like a bright child in the middle of show and tell. Shirt still bunched mid-chest, his belly flopped and his graying pony tail swayed, both in sync with his animated story telling.

Emma had been acquainted with Jack for years, starting from her early days in this small town. She didn’t know him well, but knew he was both eccentric and exceedingly intelligent. This combination of traits led to a specific conversational pattern between them. It would start off with Emma being totally, exhilaratingly engaged in debate. But somewhere in the middle of the discussion she would invariably find herself lost while Jack continued down his unique synaptic path. Be it that he outmatched her either in wit or in strangeness, the relevance of the chat would trail off permanently at that point. He and his former wife moved away and Emma hadn’t really heard about him since.

Now here he stood – as colorfully mismatched as ever, patriotically decal-ed cane waving to punctuate each unsolicited opinion. But something was different about Jack now. In the old days, his eccentricities could be shrugged off as a living example of Thoreau’s different drummer essay. But the man in front of her today seemed unable to spend more than a few moments in the commonly agreed upon sense of reality shared by average and regular humans.

“Oh, isn’t this just the cutest little thang?” Emma’s thoughts were interrupted by a small flock of tour bus escapees trying to squeeze into the small gift shop. Before she could greet them, Jack sprang into action.

“YOU WON’T FIND PALM TREE SALT AND PEPPER SHAKERS ANYWHERE ELSE ON THIS ISLAND! GET THESE AND YOU WON’T BE SORRY, UNCLE JACK PROMISES YOU THAT!” His voice boomed and echoed throughout the tiny space. Emma held her breath for a timeless instant until the three 60something ladies dissolved into a group giggle.  Breathing a sigh of relief, she allowed the repartee to continue for a minute or so, until she sensed that Jack was getting too intense and saw the ladies almost backing away in response.

“Jack.” Emma said quietly, trying to get his attention. He turned towards her. “Sit down,” as she pointed to the chair in front of her cash register.

“Wait, I’ll get this sale for –“

“Sit down.” Her voice still low, it nevertheless carried a mom tone that meant do it NOW.

Looking rather dejected, he sat. Emma left her station to deal with the customers, mentally debating what she was going to do with Jack after the ladies left. She was within her rights to eject him from the store and wasn’t cowed by the stack of expensive merchandise he was intending to buy. Emma had no qualms about laying things on the proverbial line. But still…his loneliness was palpable.

When the store cleared, he began his lament, “All I was trying to do was — ” but she cut him off before he could finish.

“Okay, here’s the deal. You’re welcome to stay and chat. But these are the conditions. One – stop playing clerk. That’s my job, not yours. Two – you have a voice made for the stage but you don’t realize how loud it is. When I give you the sign, it means speak softly. Three – well, I’ll let you know when I think of number three. Understand?”

Like a puppy recently scolded but knowing that his human was still his human, Jack tried to look contrite. “Yes. I get it.”

For the next few moments they sat there in silence, Emma doing paperwork, Jack looking around the shop, each smiling inwardly.

The afternoon progressed without major incident. Occasional conspiracy rants were interwoven with the proud showing of grandkid pictures, with no mention of various ex-wives or where he’d been during the past decade. Visitors wandered in and out of the shop. Jack kept a watchful eye on Emma, waiting for a sign that would indicate the acceptability level of his behavior.

During a quiet moment, Emma contemplated the pile of merchandise Jack had accrued. A combination of practical and frivolous, the items now figured into several hundred dollars. Putting this together with recent tales of Jack’s extravagant three-week stay at the local luxury hotel, Emma couldn’t resist asking what the whole town had been wondering.

“So what’s the deal? You win the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes or something?”

“Yeah, something like that.” The rueful laugh told her it was anything but.

And then a few minutes later:

“Can you believe they send me all kinds of money every month now?”

“Who?”

“Who else? Big Brother.”

Emma thought about this for a moment. Assessing his age and remembering that several of her Vietnam Vet neighbors had recently “retired” early from their jobs, she began to get a clearer idea of what was going on with Jack. She offered only a feeble “Uh, better late than never?” which was met with a derisive snort. She didn’t know what to say, but was silently thankful that her usual selfishness seemed to be on break today. His new thoracic scar was nothing compared to the ones responsible for this recent windfall.

“So how’s Sadie these days?” His youngest daughter was a classmate of Emma’s stepson, so this was good common ground. They laughed and chatted and her exasperation with his Jackness was tempered by knowing that there was only an hour left of this.

Finally it was time to close the shop. She gave him one last chance to curtail his shopping craziness.

“Okay, if you want this stuff I’ve got to ring it up now. But if not, let’s put it back.”

“No, no! I really want it!”

Emma went through the stack, ringing up some of the items and tossing others aside while muttering, “nope, I’m not selling you a sequined evening bag,” folding/bagging as she went. Finally she hit the total key and $285 popped up, which was probably the all time highest sale the small shop would ever have – and it was time to pay up.

Jack dumped a wallet full of credit cards onto the counter. “Pick one” he instructed. Emma selected a colorful VISA.

“Sorry. It’s declined.”

Jack handed her a red, white and blue MASTERCARD.

Declined.

“I just don’t pay attention to what gets paid when.”

About the time Emma began to wonder if this was just a game, the local Hawaiian Bank VISA with the sandy blue waves was promptly accepted.

He helped her sweep and close the shop. As she was leaving, Emma noticed the bouquet of fresh flowers on the counter and remembered the shop would be closed tomorrow and that the flowers wouldn’t make it until Monday. Rather than deal with tossing them away now or making the Monday person do it, Emma turned to Jack, “Would you like to take these flowers back to your room?”

“Really? I can pay for them.”

“Oh no, I don’t mean buy them, I just thought you might want them and –“ She started to explain that it would save her the trouble of dumping them, but stopped when she saw the look on his face.

“I’d love to have them.” His voice was quiet with a slight waver. “Thank you. Thank you, Emma. You don’t know how much that means to me.”

The sincerity of his words, combined with knowing how flippantly the offer was made cut straight to her heart. “Sure, no problem. You enjoy them, okay?”

By now they were leaving the shop, Emma locking the door behind them. She smiled and waved goodbye as she walked towards her car.

“Emma?”

She turned. “Yeah, Jack?”

“Thanks. Thank you for everything. I mean it.”

Not sure what exactly she was being thanked for, Emma replied simply, “You’re welcome, Jack.”

Watching him clumsily stuff his purchases and precious floral cargo into his rental car, she murmured “please take care of him” to no one in particular. Swallowing past a tightness in her throat, Emma could feel a sadness rising. She hurried to her own car, hoping to beat the deluge.

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