The Last Time I Saw Chet
Sam Jenkins was awarded Second Place in Fiction in the 2019 Prison Writing Contest.
Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population. On September 18, PEN America will celebrate the winners of this year’s contest with a live reading at the Brooklyn Book Festival, BREAK OUT: A 2019 PEN America Prison Writing Awards Celebration.
The Last Time I Saw Chet
Last night I called my dog over and over, needing to put her in for the night, and I thought again of the last time I saw Chet. The last time I saw Chet, I was married to someone I am not married to now, and I lived in a different city, although it was not the city where Chet lived. You see, Chet was, or is perhaps, my ex-wife’s step-grandfather. Do you need a minute to figure that out? In today’s world, it is not terribly complicated. No diagrams necessary. Every so often, we, my then-wife and then-son (I never cared for the step notation), and I would travel a few hours east to visit her grandmother and Chet. My ex-wife would get to see her grandmother, whom they called Mee-Maw. Mee-Maw would get to see her great-grandchild (who she treated as the great, grand child), and I would get to see Chet. I took an instant liking to him. Chet was that typical example of the passing generation that was not typical anymore. He had fought in two wars, managed a nuclear power plant and two different political offices. He raised three children; two of them had reached great heights of responsible manhood and were in general, pillars of the community. The third was so beautiful that some unstable man decided he should kill her rather than lose her to another. You will have to forgive me for being short on details. Facts came scant and scattered, offered up here and there by Chet and others. I seldom pry.
On our trips to Chet’s, he would take me around the grounds and show me his barn, animals, and woodworking tools. We would sit on the porch and talk; I would ask him questions and he would give me detailed answers. Then the procession would pass, led by my then-son and wife with Mee-Maw acting as the caboose. Mee-Maw would pat me on the shoulder and say, “Honey, he can’t hear a word you’re saying.” When they were gone, Chet would resume the conversation as though nothing had happened.
I was involved in a few family gatherings at Chet’s house, not as many as you might think, but still quite a few. My ex-wife’s extended family, for the most part, seemed to patronize or ignore Chet, which incidentally is how you could describe their treatment of me. After all, Chet and I were additions to the family, addendums if you will. He, the octogenarian, second husband of the matriarch, who had taken the spot of the deceased, lionized, idolized, and deified grandfather, whom I had never met. I was the rough-around-the-edges husband of the thirty-year-old problem child that they had all despaired of helping and handling and had abdicated the idea that a man ever would.
Chet and I had watched football together before; he knew a lot about the game. When we would watch with her family, I would make a comment on the game, and they would look at me strangely. Later someone would make the very same comment and they would all acknowledge what a great observation it was. Chet would say nothing at all. He had learned the ropes that were wearing me out.
One time my son (I still feel that way) was in the pasture, while Chet and I were looking over his latest barn addition. I heard a commotion and my son crying. I turned around and saw a kind of pygmy horse that had knocked him down and was raring up to stomp him while a second horse was coming to its aid. I rushed at the tiny horses, scaring them to no avail. They immediately turned and fled. I turned around to see Chet dusting off the crying child and taking him in his arms. Later, I asked my son to recount what happened, expecting to be regaled with a three-year-old’s take on my heroic efforts. He said, “I was trying to feed my horsey, and he knocked me down.” “Then what?” I prompted. “Then,” he said in an awed tone, “Chet saved me.”
But, I was going to talk about the last time I saw Chet: it was at the Christmas celebration at his house, which was not on Christmas. It was on New Year’s Day, I think, or maybe the day before or after, whenever that brood of vipers could congregate. The tree was up, and we watched the children open their gifts. Then came the giving and receiving of gifts to and from adults I either did not know well enough to like or knew just enough to dislike. The children were enlisted as Santa’s elves to deliver the presents. My ex-wife hovered over her son’s every move. I was seated next to my confederate, Chet. They brought me something, a sweatshirt I think, and I thanked whoever was responsible. Then they, accompanied by my then-mother-in-law, brought Chet a box. “This is from us,” Alice said, patting him on the shoulder as he nodded his thanks. Chet took his time opening it and finally produced a pair of flannel pajamas. He turned to me, half lifting them out of the box, and said, “These are nice; who got me these?” “Roger and Alice,” I said, giving a point. “Thanks,” he said in their direction.
The celebration continued, and as I watched the children disbursing gifts, Chet tapped me on the shoulder. “Who got me these pajamas?” he asked. I paused, “Alice and Roger gave you those.” “Hmmph,” he responded looking into the box. I talked briefly with one of my then-wife’s cousins about a local football team. When I was done, Chet tapped me again. “Who gave me these?” he asked, his hands shakily going through the clothing. I swallowed hard
“Roger and Alice,” I said in a whisper.
I had not seen Chet for at least three months before that. I had missed Thanksgiving; I think she and I were fighting of course. We were always fighting. I had no idea. In the next hour, he received many gifts and I repeatedly fielded his numerous inquisitions as to their origins.
Later that night, Mee-Maw told Chet he needed to get the dog out of the pasture and put her in the garage for the night. “It is cold and Maggie gives the horses a hard time if we leave her out there,” she explained to the crowd. Then she asked me if I minded going with him.
We walked to the pasture, and Chet unlocked the gate and latched it back behind us. Maggie was romping through the pasture and proved to be a reluctant captive. We had to go to the garage and get food with which to lure her. Maggie apprehended, I walked her outside the gate, my hand clasped closely around her collar. Chet stood beside me and patted the pockets of his coat and pants. “Have you got the lock?” he asked me. I replied, “No.” “I must have dropped it somewhere back there,” he said looking at the pasture. I dragged Maggie, halting, balking, and barking to the garage. We put her on a tether, placed food in her bowl, grabbed two flashlights, and headed back to the enclosure. I walked one side of the area we had been in while Chet walked the other. We met up in the middle and I asked him if he had seen anything. “No, there is no telling where it is,” he said, placing his left hand on his hip and pushing his coat back slightly. “Chet, what’s that bulge in your breast pocket?” I asked. “Huh?” he said, producing the lock.
Once we were back on the outside of the gate, Chet began to affix the lock, and then paused. “Did you turn on the electricity?” he asked. I headed to the barn to turn on the electric fence switch that ran in front of the chain link fence along with the barbed wire that discouraged the diminutive horses from tearing it apart as a pastime. I threw the switch and returned to the gate watching the exhale of my breath in the early January night.
Once again on the outside of the gate, he stood there watching me expectantly. “You have the lock, don’t you Chet?” I asked, my tone becoming abrasive. “I thought you had it,” he said. “Check your pockets,” I told him while he looked at me beseechingly, hands thrust deeply in his coat pockets. “I already did,” he said. Admittedly, I was agitated at this point and I frisked him as roughly as any Irish beat cop had ever aspired to. The lock was not in his pockets. Disheartened, I turned on the flashlight and saw the lock laying by his feet. “I’ll get it,” Chet offered. “No,” I responded, perhaps too quickly, “I will lock it up.” “Hold on a minute,” Chet said, “I need to turn the electric fence on.”
When we returned, Mee-Maw asked, “What took you boys so long?” “Maggie didn’t much care for being put up,” I responded. She rolled her eyes for the benefit of her clan. “It took the two of you that long to put up sweet little Maggie?” Now, Maggie was neither sweet nor little, but I chose not to respond. As we drove back through the darkness and the child slept, I told my wife what had happened. I did not cry back then, but on the inside, I felt like I could. I wanted to cry for Chet. We propelled forward through the night. She took my hand, her eyes filling up with tears, as she told me about the things she had noticed about Chet. We discussed how neither of us had felt compelled to say anything to the others. I steered with my left hand as she rested her head on my shoulder. A rare moment of both peace and intimacy for us. We took turns looking at our slumbering son resting in his trust, assuming our steadiness, and that we would deliver him where he needed to be. He had no other choice.
I stood there in the darkness calling out her name, wondering where she was at.
The wife and I, the then-wife and I, eventually split up, of course. Looking back, I don’t know what convinced either one of us that we could live in matrimonial harmony. Neither of us had ever lived in harmony with anything, especially each other.
We were so much alike. I think that was both what drew us together and what pulled us apart. Opposite poles that pull on each other until they swap places, and now the powers that repel them are stronger than ever.
I remember sitting in that coffee shop listening to her tell me a little about herself, and it had might as well been my story. We had dropped out of college an equal number of times, struggled with many of the same things. We had thrown away the same opportunities, destroyed those that were precious, lived in hope of a newness, and some sort of miracle of control. I soon barreled through life with new confidence, as if I had found the piece that completed the puzzle, for a while.
Once, when we were discussing how much alike we were, she said, “But opposites attract, right?” I said, “We are opposites, I am the positive and you are the negative.” She hated that, who wouldn’t?
You always think you will know when it happens, but you don’t. When you fall apart, when all your abilities to manage, navigate, and remedy are rendered worthless. You think, at the least, in retrospect you would be able to pinpoint the place in time where everything was okay but after that it was a downhill slide to oblivion. The truth is it happens so gradually you cannot recognize, nevermind contain, it. Perhaps it was all there from the beginning, all the forces that were going to destroy me, us. The emotions, the bitterness and unforgivingness, romping around loose and hungry, ready to devour. Our shallow pride ready to stomp the other one at the least sign of weakness to raise our status in our own eyes.
The house had become a war zone. We fought the same battles, I mean the very same battles. We would have a new argument, and then the old ones would come up. The child walked through this every day rolling his eyes, seemingly unaffected. This was his normal. I felt like I was shakily going over the same evidence, combing over the same facts, yet again unable to draw a conclusion. We ran over the same ground, lashing out at one another with the same words until I wanted to scream, “Roger and Alice bought you the pajamas. Nothing has changed. It will always be the same?”
I stood in the nearly empty house wondering where it went wrong. Was it all wrong from the beginning? The house built on the slope sliding toward its inevitability. Or, was it my fault? Could I have averted it? Did I forget something? Had I changed some bad behavior or discharged some withheld action, would it have been different? Had I held the key all along and just misplaced it? Walking out of the pasture with the lock in my pocket, defeated. The gate open behind me, leaving cruel dogs loose and unfed and tiny destructive horses running wild.
I called her name again and again. I stood there staring westward, wondering where she was at or what might have become of her.
I left the garage door open, poured some food into the bowl. Finally, I closed the door and went to bed.