I am going to visit Jack on Thanksgiving this year, although he probably won’t be too enthusiastic about it. Actually, he won’t like it, if I am being optimistic about meeting him. Even Ma still blames it on me and certainly hasn’t forgiven me yet, for what I’ve done to him. And of course, when she scolded me last week she ignored the part about what Jack has done to us. But never mind that. Ma knows I was responsible for most of what happened.
I am thinking about reconciling myself with him, even though I just got out of the mess and the old memories are nevertheless fresh. Even though I still hear my resentful, though somewhat hoarse voice shouting all the time, reminding me that Jack is the traitor. Anyway, I’m going against Ma’s severe injunctions. Against my own will. To see if I can let it go.
Penelope is waiting for me in the car when I finally summon the courage to walk out of the house, with its snug and comfortable furniture, and brace myself for the biting November gusts we have here up North. The same radiant, prepossessing smile that she puts on most of the time, even when I was on the other side of the glass window. However ruffled somewhat by time, the smile belongs entirely to Penelope. The faithful Penelope that remains loyal all these years, I can’t help thinking as I come through the porch and down the stairs.
“You ready?” she asks meekly as I get into the car.
“I think so,” I say, aware of my voice’s inevitable roughness. It’s been quite a while, but somehow I still can’t shed the strangely raspy accent I’ve acquired. “Where will Jane be staying while we’re away?”
Jane is our dainty little daughter. Smart, inquisitive, yet considerate, She is the one that I care the most about ever since I returned. She is the one that kept hope for me while I struggled through these years.
“She’ll be with Ms. Young, that's our neighbor,” she says.
She starts the engine effortlessly and rolls down the driveway. It still amazes me how she has mastered the knack of driving while I was away. With my driver’s license still expired, I still haven’t yet adjusted myself to the passenger’s seat. Watching Penelope steer the wheel, collected and focused, I can’t help remembering fondly the time I tried to teach her driving. The countless failures of instilling confidence in her, prodding her to press the accelerator. It just impresses me how unexpected situations can alter a person as they adapt to the changes. Different routines, shifts in responsibilities. The inevitable changes that accompany the sudden yet momentous shifts in everything.
Penelope and I stay quiet for the most part of the trip, which is fine with both of us. Outsiders may think that we’re taciturn or are simply floundering in our struggle to remain afloat in the aftermath of the upheaval caused by the incident, but really, we just have this tacit understanding between us. Supernatural connection, telepathy, whatever you call it. I am not superstitious, but I do believe that some bonds are real and unbreakable.
So while the car coasts through the highway I pretty much glance around and enjoy the unfamiliar city landscape as much as I can. Which is little, because all I can see now are the towers of buildings that have shot up, the skyscrapers blocking the sunlight, and the obscure mist suspended above all.
I accidentally drop my unfinished cup of water when Penelope exits the highway with an abrupt lurch. I turn around instinctively and reach for a tissue. And that’s when I notice the bouquets of chrysanthemums lying in the back seat. “You bought these?” I ask, realizing a moment later the stupidity of the question.
“Yeah, I think Jack will like it, won’t he?” she says uncertainly, seemingly asking me for some sort of confirmation of her choice.
But my mind has already drifted off. The chrysanthemums. I stare at them blankly. Jack used to paint them over the Derek Jeter wallpaper I put up in the room we shared and made me boil with anger. Yet now I remember I never complained to him about it, not even once about how he shouldn’t trespass on my portion of the room. The reason that I never did complain was that Jack’s an artist, and the flowers, the riot of colors he always managed to create, were simply too captivating.
The day I went to college, Jack gave me this pin adorned with such a lifelike chrysanthemum he’d somehow made for me to put on my lapel. If I am to behold now I would probably find it ridiculous. At the time, however, it was a gift that I was most grateful for. Our parents had divorced long before either of us could recall, and gifts weren’t something I ever received. I almost cried when he handed that to me. Jack, the only person that I trusted and loved, was the only one who cared for me at all. Not Ma, she has been indifferent to me ever since my birth. My Pap, he left before I turned twelve. Somehow, I always doubt whether I was the reason that Pap had left us in the first place.
I kept Jack’s chrysanthemum in my wallet until the very day he betrayed us. I didn’t even hesitate then. I threw it out of the window the moment before I got busted. At the very least, I wanted the chrysanthemum untainted to the very end.
I’d thought that by destroying the chrysanthemum before I was convicted I would sever my only connection with Jack. As soon as they ended the trial, however, we were assigned to the same penitentiary. There wasn’t even a chance to appeal for a change. No, Jack would tail me forever.
I’m not even going to dwell on how we got charged with the crimes in the first place and how Jack and I got into the dirty business that whirled us into the subsequent tribulation. What concerns me suddenly is how I spent my time there. People who serve there often talk about how dark, torturing the cage is, but what they tend to ignore is how isolated the prison really is. For Jack at least, though I never mentioned it to him or tried to appease his apparent sadness. By then we were already not on speaking terms, and we went our separate ways. For me, Jack’s treachery had stripped the brother of all the duties he had, even something as insignificant as saying hello in the dining hall. For me, I had too much to deal with on my own.
Yet it was Jack who really had a hard time there. Maybe his conscience was gnawing on him, or whatever the cause was. I didn’t know until much later that his girlfriend had dumped him while he was serving in the penitentiary. For her partial sake! If Jack wasn’t in desperate need of money to marry her, he would never consent to join my business. I corrupted him, they say. I don’t deny it, but I meant good then.
Even as my memories are flooding back now like crazy, those regarding Jack are blurry and suppressed. Before they’d got him he was already a reticent guy, but prison pretty much broke him down entirely. Only most people would break down too with what Jack’s gone through, I haven’t realized this until this moment. In prison, there is nothing but hope. No family, no friends, no warmth, all you’ve got is your soul that’s being battered down every day. And the embodiment of hope for Jack was the chrysanthemums. Only that they didn’t grow there, and their colors faded with Jack’s memories.
Like the chrysanthemums, Jack wilted, and all that was left was the one chrysanthemum on the sill of the unreachable window where you couldn’t squeeze your head out in any way. When they removed Jack from the cell they found it and gave it to me. The only relic I have of him until now.
“We’re there,” Penelope says, jerking me back to reality.
I get out of the car and wait at the gate while Penelope parks the car and takes the stuff out. I want to talk to her and relieve my own stress as we walk up the hill, but somehow I can’t help thinking that I have chosen, out of all holidays, Thanksgiving to visit Jack. In fact, I have no idea why I picked this date, right in the middle of the break, to come here. Penelope’s parents actually invited us to their beach house in North Carolina a week earlier, and I told Penelope that I can’t go just two days ago. Selfish, and it was my whim, really. I am still guilty that Penelope didn’t even complain about it. She heartily approved my plan when I told her about visiting Jack, and simply gave her parents a call to tell them the change of plan. I don’t know what made me want to see him, but somehow this Thanksgiving has made me realize that sooner or later I’ve got to talk to Jack and sort everything out. I’ve got to visit him on this holiday for union and ask for his . . . forgiveness.
Now, when I think about it, perhaps Jack was right after all. Although he’d lost everything, every person he’d ever loved, he remained himself, loyal to his family, till the very end. I’ve always blamed Jack for bringing our downfall, for reneging on his loyalty, but maybe the exact loyalty I’d once demanded of him wasn’t a blessing at all. It was the very undoing that brought us down, my kind of loyalty. When Jack decided to turn us in, perhaps that’s what loyalty really meant. Over the last few days I’ve reflected on my past, all the chaos involved, and Jane’s school assignment made me wonder about whom I should really love and appreciate all my life. As it turns out, besides Penelope and Jane, I really have to thank Jack. For giving me the opportunity to have my rebirth, belated repentance, and the purging of my sins. And I know although I can’t do much for Jack now, I’m going to face the truth this Thanksgiving and cherish what he’s given me. My family, Jane, Penelope, and perhaps Mom. I'm going to make sure the decision Jack made that day didn’t get blemished and wasted.
I’m going to visit his grave today.