Joe and the Governor (First Three Chapters)
Copyright © 2016, William J. Cronin
I’ve often stood on Whitehead Street across the road from Ernest Hemingway’s Home and Museum and tried to imagine the scope of Hemingway’s career. One of the most complex men ever to take a number-two lead pencil to paper, Hemingway wrote seven novels, six collections of short stories, two works of non-fiction and collected two Nobel prizes. But my reason for gawking at his home had nothing to do with his inspiring career.
I wanted to understand what led Hemingway to buy this house. It wasn’t a large structure. Even by the standards of 1931, it wasn’t ostentatious. Why here? Why this particular spot? I was here in Key West to find a place of my own. I already knew I wanted something quiet and secluded. My home in Mount Dora, Florida had a separate, detached building I used as a studio that had suited my purposes. I was curious about Hemingway’s and whether examining it would offer something I hadn’t considered.
From my research, I knew of several reasons he selected Key West. First, the Florida Straights between Key West and Cuba was home to the best sport fishing in the world. Fishing drew Hemingway to Key West in 1928, a place to unwind from seven years as an ex-patriot in Paris. In 1931, he and his wife Pauline purchased the abandoned, neglected Whitehead Street mansion amid the great depression. They bought it for taxes owed—a mere eight-thousand dollars. For a perspective, if they had purchased the home today, they would have paid one-hundred-twenty-eight-thousand for property worth more than a million dollars. On just over an acre of ground, the location offered privacy. The three thousand square feet building was large enough to handle his growing family and provided space for frequent guests. Numerous French doors opened onto the wrap-around verandas on both floors. They provided adequate ventilation to combat Key West’s stifling heat and humidity. While all these were positive considerations, what I think attracted Hemingway to this particular spot was the detached two-story building to the rear of the property. A garage took up the bottom floor. Tattered servant’s quarters occupied the second, which he had converted to a studio. Hemingway needed a workroom away from distractions. At the time, he’d been writing the manuscript for Death in the Afternoon and a place to write, I thought, would’ve been foremost in his mind. In time, Hemingway had a bridge constructed from his second story veranda, near his bedroom, to the second story workroom above the garage.
As I stood and observed the Hemingway grounds, what stood out was an ill-constructed, six-foot high, redbrick wall. It surrounded the property on three sides. In 1935, Hemingway hired Toby Bruce, a family friend and woodworker from Piggott, Arkansas to build it. Having no experience as a bricklayer, Bruce’s inexperience was evident in the meandering lines of the out-of-level bricks. A tour company in Key West had added Hemingway’s abode to their circuit. Hemingway had built the wall to keep the curious from wandering about his yard. It took Bruce an entire summer to construct the barrier. While city leaders viewed the structure as an eyesore, Hemingway was well pleased. Bruce may have been a novice, but the wall still stands after more than sixty years and several hurricanes.
I hadn’t considered a fence for security. In Mount Dora, FL, five hours to the north, my home sat on a lake in a suburban setting two miles from the city center. Not once, in all the years I’d lived and written there, did I have any issues with invasive tourists. When I compared my career to Hemingway’s, the commercial success of my novels and movies made from them had exceeded his. I’d written more novels, and my gross sales had been greater than his even adjusting for the differences in value of the dollar from the 1930s and 40s to 1996. Yet, even in the early stages of his career, he was such an icon he had to construct a wall to keep out curious fans. It was humbling. While my work had enjoyed commercial success, I knew nothing I’d written could compete with Hemingway’s two Nobel prizes.
I’d been fortunate. I’d spent my life doing what I love to do; writing novels. I had no pretentions about what I wrote. I picked genre fiction and topics designed to appeal to the masses. While I’d considered writing a more literary work, the need to make a living predominated. In that endeavor, I had done well. I wanted to write a book like, The Old Man and the Sea, something noteworthy. I’d always been in awe of the simplicity of the subject matter of Hemingway’s most praised work. But I had yet to find a subject whose theme rose to the level of compelling greatness. I’d just refreshed my contract with Reynolds & Ryan Publishing. I’d negotiated and received wider latitude in what I wrote, and they’d agreed to buy three non-genre books of my choosing. I’d hoped to pursue a topic of substance, a serious attempt at literature. The “what” had eluded me. As with so many of my books, the ideas for them often came in serendipitous fashion. My attempt at prize winning literature would have to wait. I had matters that were more pressing. I needed to decide if I was going to move to Key West. If I was serious about the move, I needed to find a home that met my needs.
Three months ago, following the completion of my last novel, I’d announced at a party thrown by my half-sister Billie that I’d intended to sell my house in Mount Dora and move to Key West. At the time, there were several factors pushing me in that direction. Then it seemed like a stellar idea. Standing across the street from Hemingway’s, I was having second thoughts.
First, I’d just gone through a divorce after an eight-year marriage to Emily. A three-year writing dry spell caused by severe depression sent me to an emotional bottom. The spiral downward didn’t wear well on Emily. Complicating matters, Emily was my manager and editor, a job she still held. During my bout with depression, Emily sought the solace of my best friend, Bob Decker, who was also going through a rough patch in his marriage. The mutual commiseration evolved into an affair, which Emily kept secret until the ink was dry on our divorce papers. Two weeks before she would marry Decker, she took me out to a public place and confessed her affair. She said she kept it a secret because she didn’t think I was emotionally stable enough to handle such difficult news. She made it clear she liked working for me and wanted to continue in the role of manager and editor. At that point, I needed Emily’s skills. While writing novels takes skill, the editing and revision process takes a mediocre work and transforms it into something noteworthy. She was more than a line or copy editor. She analyzed each draft for content, guiding my revisions and she drove me to raise the level of my writing. Emily and I were a good team. The work we produced was successful. Then, I was in no position to fire her. But I didn’t have to be in the same town with her and Decker either. There were too many memories of Emily in my home in Mount Dora. Even though I still had to work with her, I didn’t want to be around her.
Second, my half-sister Billie lived in Key West. Within the last year, we had reunited. I hadn’t seen her in thirty years. She owned a restaurant in Key West, The Mangrove, on the corner of Duval Street and Olivia Street, a block from Hemingway’s house. My father had just recently passed away while my divorce from Emily was in the process. Aside from my aunt Glory Jean, my mother’s sister, who lived in Savannah, Billie was my only living relative. Following Emily’s news, I needed that familial connection. When my depression reached rock bottom, I’d come to Key West to find my sister and to attempt to reconcile our relationship.
Third, when I was fourteen, Billie was instrumental in introducing me to Jody Holland, the first girl I ever kissed and loved. Tragedy struck Jody’s family and cut our budding romance short in a disturbing way. At the same time, I was searching for Billie, Jody had moved to Key West and wandered into Billie’s restaurant and recognized Billie immediately. They became instant friends. When I came to Key West looking for Billie, she reconnected me with Jody. It was Jody and Billie who helped me work my way out of my depression and put me on the road to writing again.
In the months following, my relationship with Emily imploded. Jody and I found the chemistry that drew us together as kids produced the same reaction more than thirty years later. I was in love with her and, as time progressed, it expanded and grew more comfortable. She owned a successful business in Key West and had deep roots there. If I wanted to be with her, I needed to make the move.
In light of all these factors, moving to Key West seemed natural. In fact, as I stood across from Hemingway’s, I couldn’t think of one rational reason for not making the move. Still, I was hesitant. Billie, Jody and I had emotional scars. We all had childhood events that had wounded us and had eaten away at the edges of our happiness. We’d built our emotional foundations on shifting sand.
Our mother abandoned Billie when she was a small child, and again when she was eighteen. It wasn’t until Billie had met Alexandra that she’d been able to move past childhood events and stitch a meaningful life together.
In 1961, Jody’s mother had suffered from postpartum psychosis and shot four of her brothers and sisters and her father. She’d shot Jody, too, but had only inflicted a grazing wound to her head. The courts committed Jody’s mother to a mental institution where they incarcerated her for ten years. Three months ago, Jody and her mother reunited after thirty years. Jody’s mother, Helen, was staying in Key West while she and Jody attended joint counseling to work through the emotional damage created so long ago.
We were all wounded souls. We were all needy. But it was my relationship with Jody that gave me pause. I had no idea how counseling would affect our relationship. I was hesitant to make such a huge life investment in Key West until I’d more time to see how my relationship with Jody worked out.
I dodged passing cars, crossed Whitehead Street and aimed down Olivia Street, walking past the crooked brick wall and past Hemingway’s studio on my way to Billie’s restaurant.
Behind The Mangrove, a driveway served as a pad for a dumpster and a place where trucks delivered food and supplies. There was a man dressed in soiled clothes sitting on a fruit crate. I wouldn’t have taken notice except the restaurant hadn’t opened yet, and he seemed out of place. As I walked past the drive, the man with an unshaven face looked up at me with clear blue eyes and smiled. I nodded and continued down to the corner of Duval Street and Olivia Street, turned right and approached the front gate. Billie had converted an old two-story home into a restaurant. The front yard of the house was a brick-paved, courtyard and outdoor dining area. Two towering banyan trees shaded it. The corner lot was bound by a white picket fence with an entry gate on Duval. At the entrance, a tall white, wooden podium served as a host station. A sign read, “Closed.” I unlocked the gate and ambled past teak wood tables covered by forest green canvas umbrellas to the old home, which sat to the back of the lot.
Billie redesigned the house into a kitchen and indoor dining area. When you came through the front door, bathrooms were to the left, a café door to the kitchen was straight ahead and to the right a dining room that had been the living room of the large home. A stairway hugged the wall and led to a second floor, which provided storage and an office for Billie. Behind it, where the old dining room had been, Billie had converted it to a private dining area for large parties or meetings. Billie was in the kitchen, talking with her chef, Molly Flynn.
I’d just returned to Key West from Mount Dora the night before. I stayed at Billie’s home last night, and she had invited me to have brunch with her this morning.
When I approached the café doors that separated the kitchen from the front door, Billie turned away from Molly and looked at me. In contrast to her flyaway, rusty, red hair, her brilliant green eyes dominated her round face.
She pushed the doors apart, hugged me, stood back, looked at me and said, “You look rested. And warm! Look at you, you’re dripping wet.”
“I was standing in the sun looking over Hemingway’s museum. It’s a lot more humid in the middle of July than it was when I was here in April.”
“They don’t call it the mold capital for nothing. But, I love it. All the snowbirds are gone, and except for the cruise ships, we locals have the island all to ourselves.”
“Before I forget it, when I was walking up Olivia, I noticed a man milling about behind your restaurant.”
Billie led me into the empty dining room. They had set the table for two. We sat across from one another.
“It must be Joe. Homeless guy?”
“Joe and I have an arrangement. I let him pitch a tent in the back behind the dumpster in exchange for him keeping the yard picked up and keeping others from rummaging through my dumpster. We have a real homeless problem in Key West. People were going through my trash after I closed the restaurant. By itself, that wasn’t a problem, but they were pulling garbage out of the dumpster and throwing it on the ground, leaving a mess. Joe offered to help.”
“Do you pay him?”
“No. He won’t take money from me. I offered to feed him but he won’t have it. The only thing he wants is a safe place to sleep at night. The shelters are full, and the chances of finding a place where he won’t be robbed or mugged are slim.”
“So does he just hang around all day?”
“No. Not at all. He packs his belongings in the morning, puts them into a shed I have in the back and goes off for places unknown during the day. But here is the strange thing. One day a week, he gets all cleaned up, puts on clean clothes, comes into the restaurant through the front gate and has a meal, like a regular customer. He insists on paying the bill. And he leaves a generous tip for the servers.”
“What do you know about him?”
“Nothing. He never talks about himself. He deflects every personal question I ask him. But, Jack, he’s one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever talked to. He’s a mystery, that one. Every time I talk to him, I think about you. He seems like an awesome character for a book. You should meet him—talk to him.”
“I’d like that.”
Like I said. Sometimes ideas for stories come to you in serendipitous ways.
When I’d arrived late last night, Billie and Alex had already gone to bed. Billie left the back door unlocked and I’d gone up to her guest room. Both Billie and Alex had already gone before I got up.
The chef brought us eggs benedict, a plate of cantaloupe to share and a decanter of coffee.
Once we settled into our meal I asked, “So tell me, how’s In-Vitro going?”
When I was here in April, Billie announced she and Alex were going to try to have a baby. Billie, in her early fifties, had already gone through menopause, but she wanted to carry the baby. IVF was their only option. Billie had already been to see a fertility doctor in Miami for an initial consultation when I was here last.
“The clinic performed all the tests. The docs gave me a green light. The biggest snag is a legal one. Using eggs and sperm from donors is more complicated than I thought. It is almost like a legal adoption, where the donors agree to give up legal ownership and custody of their eggs and sperm. We’re all set to go, procedure wise. I just want to meet with Cynthia before I sign all the papers. I want to understand what I’m getting into.”
Cynthia Pike was her attorney and friend.
“Sounds complicated.” When she told me she was considering IVF, I’d never thought about the legal issues.
“The fertility clinic says it isn’t complicated. All the sperm and egg donors sign forms and give up all their rights of custody. We have to file court papers to become legal parents of the fertilized eggs or embryos. But the docs want me to sign a form that holds them harmless if at some point the egg or sperm donors want to sue for custody. Sometimes, that can happen. Alex and I felt like we needed Cynthia to go over all this with us before we press ahead.”
“What kind of tests did they have to do?”
“They had to determine if I was healthy enough to carry a baby for nine months. I’m fifty-two, Jack. I’m no spring chicken. They had to examine all my female plumbing and perform a mock embryo transfer, which is too personal to go into detail. But they just want to make sure they don’t encounter any issues during the procedure.
“After the legal issues, Alex and I have some tough decisions. For example, the most important decision is how many embryos do we want to implant?”
“I don’t understand. Why would you consider more than one?”
“Jack, they drain your bank account every time they perform this procedure. Implanting more than one embryo increases the chances of a successful pregnancy. But it also means I could have twins or triplets depending on the number of embryos we choose to implant.”
“Doesn’t that increase the risk of health complications?”
“Yes, but the fertility docs assure me I’m healthy enough to handle a multiple pregnancy.”
“Are you and Alex prepared for something like that? I mean, you have this restaurant to take care of. Could you handle the stress of more than one child?”
“I don’t know, Jack. Alex and I are working through that now. I think I’m more concerned about the prospect of not having a child. This is very important to me.” Billie gave emphasis to the word “very.” “I want to be able to give a youngster the childhood I never had. This is about me, as much as it is about having a baby.”
When I thought about the loveless childhood Billie had had, abandoned by my mother as a toddler and abandoned by her uncaring natural father, I could empathize. This would mean she would have a teenage child when she was in her late sixties. I wanted to raise it as an issue for her to consider, but thought better of it.
“So how is Alex feeling about this? She was against this, wasn’t she?”
“Yes. You helped us work through it, Jack, and I appreciate it. After you left here in April, Alex and I went to see my doctors. When they explained to Alex the tests they would do to insure I was healthy enough for the procedure, it alleviated her concerns. Now that the docs have done all the exams, she’s good. The legal issues are another matter. She’s troubled about the problems that could come up. Our meeting with Cynthia is pretty important.”
“So what comes next?”
“It’s a simple process for me, since I’m using donated eggs and sperm. I go into the doctor’s office, and they inject embryos into my uterus. This is nothing more than might happen in a routine pelvic exam. If I were younger, and using my own eggs, the docs would treat me with synthetic hormones to stimulate the ovaries to produce more than one egg. After fourteen days, they’d give me more medication to help the eggs mature. I would receive more medications to prevent the body from releasing the developed eggs too soon. Whether a woman uses her own eggs, or donated eggs, they give you progesterone supplements to make the lining of the uterus more receptive to implantation.
“If I’d been using my own eggs, the Doc would retrieve them. From that point on, the procedure is the same whether I have eggs or use a donor. First, the clinic would fertilize the egg. After about six days, they perform genetic tests to ensure the embryo is healthy and there are no birth defects. The Doc implants the embryo and checks the progress of the pregnancy. Of course, there’s no assurance I’ll get pregnant on the first try. Although the fertility clinic plays up their success rate, they also are honest that they may have to make several attempts before I get pregnant. Because of my age, the chances of more than one attempt are higher, and there’s more of a risk of delivering a pre-mature baby, or in the worst case, I have a miscarriage. They’ll give me medications to prevent this, but there’s still that chance.”
“When do you meet with Pike?”
“We meet in a day or two when Alex returns. I was hoping you’d come with Alex and me. I’d like you to be there. You may think of something to ask her Alex and I haven’t thought of.”
“I’m concerned about being a fifth-wheel with Alex.”
“Alex suggested it, Jack.”
“I appreciate you wanting to include me, but this is personal, Billie. This is something you and Alex should do.”
We chatted while we ate and finished our meal. We refilled our coffee cups.
Billie asked, “Did you put your house up for sale in Mount Dora?”
“No. I know I said I was going to do that, but I decided I’d hold off for now.”
“Getting cold feet about moving here, Jack?”
“No, not yet anyway. I thought it might be wise to try to find a place first and live here a while before I severed ties with Central Florida. Homes are so expensive here, I’m wondering whether it would be wise to rent before I buy.”
“Tell me about it. I bought our house through a foreclosure sale. Today the taxable value is over a million and the taxes are killing us. We paid half that amount just six years ago. The problem is land to build new homes is scarce. Because of a shortage of water and sewer facilities in the keys, the government limits building permits. Jody paid more for her little cracker house than Alex and I paid for ours. It’s nuts.”
“It’s hot in the summer in Mount Dora, but nothing compared to the heat and humidity you have here.”
“For six months, it’s paradise here. And we’re currently in the wrong six months.”
“Yeah, and then the Conch Republic morphs into hell on earth.”
“Thank God for the cruise ships or we would starve. So what kind of a house are you looking for? You know you’re welcome to stay at our house as long as you like. And Jody would be ecstatic if you moved in with her.”
“I’m not ready for that yet, Billie. Besides, what I need is a place to write that’s free of distractions.”
“You’re welcome to one of our bedrooms. We have three that just collect dust.”
“I appreciate your offer, but in Mount Dora, I have a separate building for my studio. The previous owners had it built as a guesthouse with its own kitchenette and bath. I need something like that, here. And it needs to be private and quiet.”
“And my house won’t do?”
“Interruptions and distractions are the kiss of death to a writer. As good as my focus and concentration skills are, I need seclusion. All Mrs. Berger would have to do is fire up the vacuum cleaner she runs twice a week and she’d ruin my day of writing.”
“She’s not the quietest person on the planet.”
“And Jody’s place is just too small. There’s no place to write except on her back patio, and there’s too much ambient noise there.”
“If you’re looking for something on the Island to buy, that could be expensive.”
“With real estate prices going up so quick here, it sounds like a good place to invest.”
“But you’re hesitant. I thought you wanted to get away from Emily. She’s still working for you isn’t she?”
“For now. I do want to get away from her. It’s just too close, especially with her married to my best friend. The problem isn’t just the house in Mount Dora. She still works for me. Before I can do anything about that, I need to find another editor and manager. And I don’t want to do anything until I make up my mind about Key West.”
“I thought you decided to move here. It’s Jody isn’t it? You’re not sure about Jody?”
“Jody needs space right now, Billie. She has her mother here, they’re in counseling right now and, well, there’s no telling how all this will affect her.”
“I think you’re wrong about her needing space. While you’ve been away, she’s been missing you something awful. The woman is in love, Jack. She needs you. All this turmoil with her mom has dredged up long suppressed feelings. She’s struggling.”
“I know Billie. I talk to her everyday on the phone. And it’s upsetting to listen to her go through it.”
“Is that what’s bothering you?”
“I don’t know. I want to help her, but what can I do? I feel helpless.”
“You still feel the same about her?”
“I think all she needs right now is you to be there for her. I don’t think she wants or needs anything but your love and support.”
“She’s anxious to see you, too. I think she was a little disappointed about not having breakfast with us.”
“She was a little upset I didn’t stay with her last night.”
“Something’s going on Jack. What is it?”
“Billie, I’ve just recovered from a significant depression of my own. No sooner do I have my life back together; my publisher fires me. Emily divorces me, my father passes away and I find out Emily had been having an affair with my best friend. On top of that, Jody and I went digging into her past, the reunion with her mother and it’s all a little much. I’m hesitant to wade into another emotional quagmire.”
“We haven’t mentioned all my junk; almost losing my restaurant and issues over having a child.”
“It isn’t that Billie. It is the sum of all of it. I needed a break.”
“Is that why it took you three months to return to the Keys?
“Part of the reason . . . okay, yes it was the reason.”
“Then why are you thinking about a move here?” There was a wounded quality to Billie’s voice. A sarcastic tone.
“For starters, I love you. You’re pretty much the only family I have. And I’m in love with Jody. I want to be here.”
“I don’t want to be a burden to you, Jack.”
I regretted the turn in our conversation. “Billie, you’re misunderstanding me.”
Billie lifted her elbows off the table and pushed back into her chair. “Doesn’t sound like it to me.”
“You aren’t my concern, Billie. I’m not worried about you. It’s Jody. She’s looking for a commitment from me, one I’m unwilling to make until I see how everything goes with her mother.”
“I thought you saw Jody and her mother going through counseling as a positive step.”
“You said you admired her courage and wisdom in hitting her issues with her mother head on.”
“Yes, I did. And I still feel that way. I do admire her. It demonstrates a lot of character. But I guarantee the process she’s going through with her mother will change her.”
“Yes, there could be changes. But do you think that part of Jody, the part you fell in love with as a boy and now again after all these years as a man, will have changed? She’s one of the finest people I’ve ever known and she’s in love with you. Yes, she’s dealing with some significant emotional issues. You can’t experience what she went through without collateral damage. But, she’s dealing with it, facing it. You were a mess when you first came to Key West, and Jody jumped in that hole you were in and helped you dig yourself out. She didn’t hesitate.”
“I know, Billie. I know. I’m grateful to her and to you. You both saved my life. And I’m not having second thoughts about her. I just want to go slow. I just want to make sure it’s a relationship that can endure.”
“It’s endured for over thirty years, Jack. I don’t know how much more enduring it can be.”
“You’re right.” I threw up my hands. “You’re right. I’m worrying for nothing.”
“You should go find, Jody. But, tonight’s the night Joe usually comes and has dinner. There’re no ships in town, so tonight will be slow. Why don’t you and Jody come and have dinner with me. I want you to meet this guy.”
Ninety degrees plus ninety percent humidity equal miserable. Even though I’d dressed for the heat in shorts, a light T-shirt and flip-flops, my clothes stuck to my skin. Jody’s art gallery was halfway down Duval Street between Billie’s restaurant and the Pier House. It was nearing noon, and the foot traffic on the sidewalk was light. The smell of the sea filled the air. The sun was relentless and shade elusive.
The Pegasus Art Gallery logo in gold leaf was emblazoned on the glass entry door. Jody had filled the plate glass window with several watercolors featuring a local artist. An electronic bell chimed as I opened the door to enter. Jody was sitting behind a small table that doubled as a stand for her cash register and a work surface. She looked up from her work, saw it was me, bolted from the chair, crossed the short distance between us and threw her arms around me. I returned her hug with enthusiasm. She kissed me on the mouth.
“Mmmmm, have I missed those.” And she kissed me again, longer and deeper. She pulled back. “Yes, indeed I have.” Her eyes beamed; a smile spread across her thin face.
“You look marvelous, Jody.” And she did. As I was holding her, the conversation I’d just had about commitment with Billie echoed. In her arms, those feelings seemed silly and melted away. I pulled away from her. “I’m soaked. I’m going to mess up your clothes. And I smell like last year’s laundry.”
“We need to get you out of those clothes, then.” She winked at me. “I think we should close up for lunch, go to my house, and we’ll run your clothes through the dryer. And maybe while we’re waiting we can think of something to do. A shower perhaps?”
And that’s what we did. Afterwards, we sat on her small deck behind her conch-style house and she and I caught up. The lunch-hour stretched into two hours.
I asked her, “Don’t you need to get back to the gallery?”
“Okay. Let me see. I haven’t seen you in three months. You’re in my house and you’re sitting on my porch. I was thinking that as soon as we finish our lemonade, we could find our way back to my bed. So why would I want to go back to the gallery? Unless of course you want me to go?”
I smiled at her. This was typical Jody, a playful, unabashed tease.
We spent the afternoon, napping, playing and catching up. An hour before dusk, we dressed and walked the short distance to the Pier House sunset deck. We selected a table with an unobstructed view of the setting sun. We ordered Margaritas and then sat close together watching silhouetted boats of every description motor past the deck.
Jody volunteered. “My mother and I are meeting twice a week now.”
I’d wanted to ask how the counseling sessions were going with her mother. I’d learned with Jody, on this particular subject, it was best not to pry. Over the past three months, we’d talked on the phone every day. I took the position that when she was ready to talk about her mother, she would. It had been a couple of weeks since she’d brought the topic up. She’d already told me a month ago they’d increased their joint counseling sessions to twice a week.
“Oh? How is that going?”
“If Dr. Carnes asks me one more time about how I feel about something, I’m going to scream.”
“So, how are you feeling about all this?” I drew out the word feeling and smiled.
Jody punched me on the arm.
I asked, “Has it accomplished anything?”
“When we started meeting with Dr. Carnes, I’d no idea what to expect. In our first meeting, Dr. Carnes asked my mother to share what was in her heart. That took up the entire first session.”
“What did she say?”
“Same thing she told us when we first met with her. She knows what she did was wrong; she was out of her mind when she did it. While she feels horrible about what happened, she’s adamant it was not her fault.”
“Mentally, I understand it. I know she was sick. I understand it in my mind. Deep down, all I feel is rage. And, after three months of counseling, I still feel that way.”
“Has there been any progress?”
“Yes. I can be in the same room with her. And our sessions are more like guided conversations. I know this is going to sound strange, but I’m beginning to see the anger I feel isn’t connected to her. I’m beginning to see her as a person instead of a convenient bull’s eye for my angst. The rage I feel is much broader than my mother. I haven’t said this to Dr. Carnes, but I can separate my mother from that anger.”
“First, I understand the anger problem is my issue, not my mother’s. She was the catalyst, the first-mover. My anger comes from my inability to deal with what happened to my family, not my mother. My anger goes beyond her.”
“So who’s the target of your anger?”
“I don’t know, Jack. I’m still trying to sort it out. When we first met with my mother, she equated the tragedy of our family to a natural disaster. Hurricane Andrew was the example she used that stuck with me. I remember my anger as I watched the news coverage of the people that monster storm had killed. I remember the anger I felt that something so horrible and senseless could happen to the innocent.”
“You know, Jody. I remember reacting the same way.”
“Good. Now magnify that a hundred times and you approach how I’m feeling.” Jody drew out the word feeling for emphasis.
“So you’re angry at God?”
“Yes . . . No . . . I don’t know. I’m angry at what I don’t understand. But I agree with what my mother said to us three months ago. Tragedies occur all the time. Fate takes the lives of the innocent. And there’s no one left standing to take the blame. I want someone to be responsible. I want to hurl my anger at someone. I want to hurt someone over what happened to my family. When I look at my mother, and what she’s been through, I know she’s not to blame. She was a victim, too.”
“Sounds like a lot of progress to me.”
“I suppose. A mixture of good and bad. The good news for my mother is she gets the target taken off her chest. The bad news is I don’t know where to place the blame. I still have the anger. My life was simple before we started counseling. I hated my mother for what she did. Now it isn’t simple any more. Now I still have the anger, but I don’t know where to direct it. Here is the interesting part, Jack. I don’t want to give up that anger. It has become a part of me. And while I may be able to forgive my mother, I’m concerned my desire to protect and sustain my anger is the real monster hiding under the bed.”
“It seems to me your recognition of the problem is more than half the battle. Have you shared any of this in counseling?”
“No. I wanted to talk to you about it in person, first. I’ll be honest. When I make that confession, and let my mother off the hook, the dynamics of the counseling will shift its focus to my issues. Do you remember the first time we met with my mother, we had this little exchange about why she wanted to see me. I assumed she wanted my forgiveness. If you recall, she said she didn’t want or need my pardon. She had come to help me deal with the emotional damage created by what she’d done. I understand that now. She’s not my problem and my mother has known it all along. My issue is that I haven’t dealt with what happened to me in the correct way. The irony is I have an emotional illness that’s the cause of my angst, not my mother. Once I let the cat out of the bag, I’ll have Dr. Carnes and my mother pressing me to deal with it. The focus moves off my mother and what she did, to me.”
“And how do you feel about that?” I again drug out the word feel into three or four syllables, and feigned a broad smile.
“I feeeeel like Dr. Carnes and my mom have me hog tied and they’re dragging me toward mental health. I know I need to do this; everything in me is fighting against it. Do you think I’m crazy, Jack?”
“Quite the opposite. Even on my best days during my long bout with depression, I was not thinking as clearly as you are. I’m so impressed with your analysis and the conclusions you’re coming to. You’ve a keen intelligence I find attractive.”
“Thanks, you’re kind to say that. But right now I don’t feel like I have it together. So . . . you’re only attracted to my intellect?” A hint of a smile broke at the corners of her mouth.
I said, “So you think what we did this afternoon was a meeting of the minds.”
“Yeah, something like that.” Her light brown eyes sparkled.
“Have you and your mother gotten together outside of counseling since I left for Mount Dora?”
“No. She’s invited me several times to have a meal with her, but I declined. Until I’d sorted out my relationship with her, I didn’t want to add any complications. I told her you were coming into town and she suggested you and I get together with her. She likes you, Jack. She always has.”
“So you’re okay with that?”
“If you’re with me, yes. I think I’m ready. I need to share all this with her and Dr. Carnes tomorrow when we get together. I’ll suggest we get together at Billie’s for dinner. I’m not ready to invite her to my house.”
“Billie wants us to come to dinner tonight. She wants me to meet this homeless guy named Joe.”
“Billie has been talking about this guy for a couple of weeks now. I’ve seen him hanging around the restaurant.”
“He gets cleaned up once a week and becomes a paying customer. Billie thinks this guy would be a good character for one of my books.”
“Billie has an enormous heart, Jack. I just hope she knows what she’s getting into.”