Leading a full life under the radar.
By Manny Dixon-Peralta
Burdine Street. Late July. The sun has fallen. All is quiet, bar the tunes of the crickets and cicadas drifting aimlessly into the warm summer dark. In his humble home, along this modest street in Somerset, Kentucky, Jerry Wayne, 76, is almost ready for bed.
He sits in his recliner, drinking a cold glass of water. The television is playing, but he is not watching.
He keeps it on to fill the quiet of the house.
His wife, Sarah Jane, 75, is on vacation with her sister in sunny California. They have been married more than 50 years. She loves him almost as much as the sound of her own voice.
He is not accustomed to the quiet.
On the mantle above the hearth sits an old clock. At the change of the hour, the show he was not watching comes to an end, and the clock chimes 10 times. He clambers up from the chair, slowly, and by the dim light of a lamp, begins making his bed on the couch.
Though the bedroom is vacant, he is accustomed to the feel of the couch, and climbing up into the bed would be too big a feat for his ever-aching back.
The television is now off as is the lamp. He lays still and stiff on the couch. He wears nothing but his bloomers — no blanket covers his hairy, freckled body.
The home is decorated with things he once was: a picture of him wading in a river fly fishing sits on the table by the lamp; his painting of a Native American man hangs above the old clock on the mantle; a plaque inscribed with “To ‘Mr. D’ our teacher, father, friend” hangs on the wall by his computer; and the plans of various houses and business around Somerset he designed sit stacked on his desk.
Of these things — fisherman, artist, teacher, architect — he was and still is.
But add old man to the list.
On the couch he does not sleep. There is a pain in his right side, and it is growing ever-more sharp. His breath becomes laborious, shallow, painful. He lays like this early into the morning, until it becomes unbearable.
Beaver Creek Dam. Early summer. Jerry can feel the cool of the streaming waters against his brown waders.
“You got any yet?” surgeon Donald Brown, 68, calls from the boat.
“Not a one” Jerry Wayne responds, with an air of cheerful determination.
He wades out in the green cool of the water, among the fish he hopes to catch and promptly release.
These men have fished together for years. In the old days, there would be no boat. Both would wade out together, searching for bites. But in his older age, Don finds he rather enjoys the comfort of the little pontoon.
Jerry reckons the day he is too old for wading will be the day he is too old for fishing.
As the trip comes to an end, Jerry climbs over the side and into the boat, and they start back toward the dock. From the convenience of the boat, Don has caught nearly 18 fish. And though Jerry has only caught four, he still holds on his face the expression of a man more satisfied.
Burdine Street. Amanda Hopson, 53, pulls up into her father’s driveway no more than 10 minutes after she hears the feeble voice on the other line. She lives next door and cannot believe he did not call sooner.
She is angry from fear.
She lifts the key to the front door from its hiding place under a lock on the windowsill and quickly enters the house.
Jerry Wayne is laying in the same position on the couch.
She helps him sit up, gets him dressed and walks him slowly to her 2006 Toyota Camry. There is little talk.
She does not need to ask how he is feeling.
“Have you gotten ahold of Don?” she asks him, backing down out of the driveway.
“Talked to him,” Jerry Wayne says, pausing after every other word. “Right after I got off with you. He is going to admit me directly.”
“Thank the Lord,” she says. “Just hang on, Dad.”
In 45 minutes, the car pulls into Baptist Health of Corbin, and Jerry Wayne is being wheeled across the white tiles to a hospital bed.
Nancy, Kentucky. Mitch, 57, sits in an old and dusty garage, smoking a cigarette. To his left sits on old Ford Mustang he is being paid to work on. It is in fair condition but needs some work. Mitch is as good as anyone in town with a wrench, and charges only a quarter of the price.
He loves to tinker.
To his right sits an old truck with no wheels. It is propped up on cinder blocks. This he is restoring for fun. He tinkers for pay on the weekdays, but the weekends are reserved for fun. Today he is not working. Today he sits and waits.
In the wild, wacky 1970s Mitch met Jerry Wayne at Nancy High School. Jerry was a teacher of art and biology, and Mitch was a snot-nosed kid who did not give much of a shit about anything but cars. Upon a chance meeting, they formed a unique bond that has lasted these 40-some-years. The pair co-own the old garage.
On the weekends, Jerry Wayne makes the 20-minute drive out to Nancy and his business. The excess money he has left over from his teacher’s retirement each month goes toward these side projects. The two have been working on the little old truck for years. They hope to have it running and rolling by next summer.
Today Jerry Wayne does not make it out.
He sits in a hospital bed in Corbin. And Mitch, not feeling much like tinkering, sits and smokes — waiting for an update on his old teacher, mentor, friend.
Corbin, Kentucky. The room is blue. The walls, the bed sheets, the curtain between Jerry’s bed and the patients next to him — blue. Tangible was the color in the air. The feeling in the room —deep blue.
Jerry lays in the hospital bed. He says nothing if he can get around it. He smiles and nods at the nurses as they check his blood pressure, probe his popping veins for samples, hookup IVs and catheters.
He says nothing. He is in pain.
In the two chairs the room supplies sit his two daughters, Amanda Hopson and Carrie Wiese, 44. They sit in silence and share the occasional concerned look between bouts of doting on their dad. It is the not knowing.
Jerry’s phone on the bedside table begins to buzz. Amanda picks it up and shows the name appearing to her sister.
“No point,” Carrie says softly, shaking her head.
In agreeance, Amanda places the phone back down and lets it buzz to voicemail.
They turn their attentions back to their father.
This is the first they have seen him in such state. For all of his life, Jerry Wayne has been their strong, ever-present figure. Picking them up when they fell, cheering them on no matter the situation. Through youthful birthdays, band competitions, cheerleading meets. Through adulthood: graduations, weddings, pregnancies, births of his grandchildren, divorces.
Now lies here, Jerry Wayne, their father, their hero, waiting for the doctor’s verdict. Breathing slow breaths, shallow, shallow.
Jerry’s phone begins to buzz again.
Route 66. California. At a rest area, Sarah Jane and her sister Charlena, 56, sit in their rented car, trying to reach home.
The pair have had the time of their lives on this trip. It felt nostalgic in a sense, though they had never been to the West Coast in their lives. The two of them together alone on this great adventure are offered the freedom to return to a youthful sisterhood these aging ladies have not experienced in a long time.
It was filled with giggling youthful laughter and gossip. Freedom. No sons, daughters, grandbabies, husbands to worry about. They were transported back to a time before their names were “Mom” and “Gramma.”
Just the two of them without a damn to give but any damn they wanted to.
They rode with the top down on their rental, turned the radio up all the way, stopped along Route 66 wherever and whenever they wanted to. At night they would share a mixed drink and get drunk over dinner.
Today fun times make way for worry, as they cannot get a hold of their loved ones.
For the fifth time, Sarah dials the number of the one she loves most. She places the speaker to her ear. “Ring. Ring. Ring.”
Worry creeps into fear. The hundred possibilities run through her head, each worse than the last.
She calls again, and it connects.
“Hey, Mom,” Amanda says.
“Mandy? Where is Jerry? What’s going on down there? Whys nobody answering my calls?”
She tells her mother the situation as it has occurred: Dads gallbladder was on the verge of bursting, and he was in a lot of pain. We rushed him to Corbin to be looked after by Don. When Don said he would remove the gallbladder today, Jerry weakly responded “cut the mother out!” He did that exactly — he is out of surgery, in recovery now.
“Aint nothing you can do in California, mom, we just didn’t want to worry you.”
“Too late for that.”
The sisters get into the car and drive to the airport, top up. They are on the next flight back home.
Burdine Street. August. The sun has fallen again. The crickets and cicadas sing their songs into the night. Jerry Wayne, sits in his recliner, almost ready for bed. A week after going under the knife, the slight sting now present in his side is irrelevant in comparison to the gut-wrenching pain it has replaced.
In the recliner directly opposite him sits Sarah Jane in her nightgown, sipping on a glass of tea. The television is off. The void is filled with grand tales of California adventure. She talks until the old clock on the mantel sounds 10 times.
She gets up, and by the light of the lamp, makes Jerry’s bed on the couch. She watches as he undresses, and lays down on the couch. She covers him up with a blanket. He knows, as does she, he will not sleep with it over him. She places it on him anyways, and he lets her.
“If you need anything, honey, just holler,” She says, as she bends down and gives him a kiss on the forehead.
He listens to the floorboards creak as she walks softly through the kitchen, down the hall, into bed, then — quiet.
In the dark of the night, Jerry Wayne sleeps peacefully.