By: Garland Davis
Jessie carried his seabag up to the Marine sentry at the pedestrian exit at the Naval Station Treasure Island. He showed his discharge papers to the Lance Corporal who said, “Finally going home, huh?”
“You bet your ass on that. Four long years. Biggest mistake, I ever made. Soon as I get to the bus station, I’ll get out of this Donald Duck suit and into real clothes,” Jessie replied.
“I still have two more years in the Crotch, and then I’ll be following you.”
He humped the seabag and AWOL bag to the San Francisco-bound bus stop and settled on the bench to wait. He looked back at the gate to T. I. with a feeling of freedom and release. It was hard to believe that it was finally over and he was going home. Home, the place where he grew up, the place where he belonged.
Almost immediately a car exiting the gate and driven by a First Class Cook pulled over. The driver asked, “Where are you going? If I am going that way, I’ll drop you off.”
“The Greyhound bus station.”
“Jump in, that’s only a couple of blocks out of my way. I’ll drop you. You going to catch a new ship? I see from your shoulder patch you were in a can in the Pineapple Fleet. I pulled a tour on a tanker out of Pearl. Good duty.”
“Nope. I’m no lifer. No more ships and no more Navy for me. I am going home to Nebraska. Four long years and three WestPac cruises. It’s going to be a better life for me now. I’ve waited for this day since I arrived in San Diego. Joining the Navy was a mistake.”
Little more was said as they drove from the bridge into San Francisco. Jessie was thinking of his life before the Navy, hanging out with his friends and having a few beers. Trying to get a date with some of the ugly girls from the tech college. Trips to Omaha to get someone to buy beer or whiskey for them. His mother’s cooking and the quiet of his room and sleeping late on weekends. Hearing the latest music and seeing the new TV shows. Yeah, life was going to be good again.
As they arrived at the bus station, the PO1 offered his hand and said, “Well, good luck kid. It ain’t as bad as you are thinking. Remember that.”
Jessie took his hand, thanked him for the ride and hefted the seabag to his shoulder, grabbed the AWOL bag and went to the ticket counter. He said, “One way to Omaha, Nebraska,” when the lady behind the counter acknowledged his presence.
She quickly prepared the ticket, placed a baggage routing tag on his seabag, and collected forty-one dollars from him. She said, “The bus leaves in three hours from gate two. Have a pleasant trip.”
Jessie thanked her, grabbed the AWOL bag and looked around for the head, nope, not head, restroom. He had to break the habit of using Navy vernacular. After all, he was a civilian. He went into the restroom and quickly changed from Dress Blues into the Jeans, shirt, and boots he bought at the Navy Exchange and packed in the AWOL bag. This was his Uniform of the Day from now on. He picked up the blue uniform from the floor and moved to throw it in the shitcan, wait, trashcan but hesitated as he looked at the PO3 Machinery Repairman patch that he had been so proud of. Instead, he stuffed them and the shoes into the AWOL bag and went looking for a place to get a hamburger. No more roast mystery meat for Jessie.
After a quick lunch, Jessie went to a bookstore and bought three Louis L’Amour westerns. It would be two days on the bus to Omaha. He went back to the bus station, got four dollars change from the cashier and went to the phones to call home. His mother answered as the phone rang for the fourth time. “Hello.”
“It’s Jessie Mama. I’m out of the Navy. I got discharged this morning. I’m in San Francisco. The bus will leave here in about an hour. I will be in Omaha at three PM the day after tomorrow, and it will probably be a three or four more-hour bus ride to home from there.”
“We are looking forward to your coming home son. Your daddy would pick you up in Omaha, but with just starting the new job, it is hard to get time off. I’ll see if your cousin Donnie might be able to come get you. Call me back tomorrow, on the way, and I’ll let you know. It’ll be good to have you back home Jessie. It’s been hard on your daddy, Jessie since the factory closed and he had to take a lot lower pay at another place. Things have been hard here since the factory left. I am also working as a cashier at Woolworths. Every little bit helps.”
“Okay, Mama,” he said as the phone beeped for more coins, “I’ll call tomorrow. Bye, Mama.”
He hung up the phone and walked to the waiting area. He was wondering what she meant by “things have been hard here.” His hometown was a good place to live. Life had always been good there. Jessie guessed he would have to look for a job pretty soon. But not right away. He had over five thousand dollars that he had saved. That should be enough to buy a decent car and let him take a break for a while He would worry about finding a job after relaxing for a few weeks.
The trip seemed interminable, but finally, the skyline of Omaha rose slowly out of the prairie. He had called last evening, and his mother told him that Donnie would be at the bus station to pick him up. It took forever, but the bus finally arrived at the Omaha terminal, and he waited impatiently while the driver unloaded the baggage from the compartment under the bus, retrieved his seabag and went into the terminal searching for his cousin.
“Hey Jessie,” a voice called from behind him. He turned and saw his cousin. He looked a lot older and wearier than Jessie remembered. He was heavier and moved slower. He seemed a lot older than twenty-three.
“Hey Donnie, “as they shook hands. “How are you doing?”
“Getting by,” Donnie said as he grabbed the seabag and carried it toward the door. “We gotta go, I have early deliveries tomorrow and need to get some sleep.”
The walked toward a beat up white pickup parked at the curb. He was looking around for the Mustang that Donnie had been so proud of when Jessie was there on leave a couple of years ago. Donnie threw the seabag into the bed of the pick-up. They climbed in, and the truck started after a few seconds of grinding the starter. They pulled out and began the final leg of the trip home.
“Whose truck is this? Where’s your Mustang?” Jessie puzzledly asked.
“It’s my truck. I had to let the Mustang go back after I lost my job at the factory. I couldn’t afford the payments. I can barely afford this truck what with helping Mama and Daddy make the payments to keep from losing the house. With mama losing her job at the factory, things are real hard at home now. I deliver the newspapers early in the morning and then deliver bread from the bakery to the stores in five or six little towns.” Donnie explained.
“Donnie, how is Louisa? When are you guys going to get married” Jessie asked?
“I don’t rightly know how she is. I ain’t heard from her in a long while. We broke up. She moved to South Dakota with her aunt. She got a job watching children at a babysitter business. There wasn’t anything around here, and with me losing my job there was no way we could afford to get married,” he replied. “I tried to join the Navy like you did, but I couldn’t pass the doctor’s examination. I really messed up my knee bad during that football game, and they classified me as 4F. I can’t even get drafted. I tell you, Jessie, you oughta stayed away from here. There ain’t a lot here anymore. Most of the people we went to school with have left. A lot of the stores are out of business. Many have lost their houses. The whole town was the factory. Without the factory, there isn’t much left.”
Jessie was shocked to hear this. Donnie was always making things out to be bigger than they really were. It couldn’t be that bad. They talked more on the way, but Donnie’s desultory attitude didn’t lend itself to casual conversation.
Finally, they made the turn onto the main street of town. He was home. Arriving in his hometown after so many years away was stunning. As they turned off Main onto Emery, he was astonished at all the dark houses in the early night. Almost every house had a for sale or foreclosed sign on the neglected weed grown lawns. It reminded him of the ghost towns of the western movies. The only thing missing was the tumbleweeds.
Simply riding down the street of his hometown, he was awash in nostalgia reminded of the past at every turn. That dark yellow house was where he broke up with his first girlfriend, there in that park; he had lost his first fight. The places that he had fond memories of now seemed to be just that, places with memories, filled with the vestiges of people who weren’t around any longer or weren’t like they once were. He had no control over the constant flood of remembering. But after what he had heard from Donnie, there was a strangeness about the familiarity.
His house came into view. The porch light was on, and his mother was waiting, looking down the road to see if that was Donnie’s truck. They pulled into the drive, he jumped out of the truck and ran to hug his mother. She said, “Welcome home Jessie. It is so good to see you. Your daddy wanted to come pick you up, but he is working the swing shift at the tire company. He just got the job and don’t have any time off built up yet.”
Donnie brought the seabag and AWOL bag to the porch and said, “Well, welcome back. I gotta go get some sleep. I’ll see you around.”
Jessie and his mother said, “Thank you, Donnie,” and she handed him a five-dollar bill. “This is to pay for the gas.”
Donnie sheepishly took the money and walked to his truck, climbed in and drove away.
Jessie grabbed his bags and followed his mother into the house. She closed the door and turned the porch light off. She said, “Daddy will be home in about three hours. I am going to fix his supper. Are you hungry? I would have had something ready, but I didn’t know exactly what time you would be here.”
“That’s okay; I am not really hungry. I’ll wait until Pop gets home. Donnie was telling me that things are really hard around here after the factory went bankrupt and everyone lost their jobs. I saw a lot of what looked like empty houses as we came down the street. What has happened?”
“There are only three houses on the street with occupants now. They were all foreclosed or the owners just left the keys in the mailbox and moved up to Omaha or someplace where they could find work. Your dad was out of work for almost six months before he got the job at the tire company. He doesn’t make anywhere near as much as he did at the factory. And I am working part-time at Woolworths. We got behind on the house payments while he was out of work. We can make the payments now, but we can’t catch up. We got the foreclosure letter yesterday. Your Daddy is going tomorrow to talk to them and see if there isn’t some way we can keep the house and make the payments and try to catch them up over time. I am not sure they will. I think we will lose the house. Then I don’t know where we will live,” she said as tears started down her face.
“Now Mama, it can’t be that bad. We will work something out. How much would it take to catch your payments up? Donnie asked.
“Payments are five hundred and seven dollars a month, and we are five months behind. I just don’t see any way of raising that much money. We sold my car and the boat and used all the savings to make the payments that we did, but now there isn’t anything else to sell or savings.”
They drank coffee and talked while waiting for his father to return from work. She worked making biscuits and frying Spam. She said, “You dad likes Spam and eggs when he gets home from work.”
Jessie made a pot of coffee and poured a cup. She asked, “When did you start drinking coffee? You wouldn’t touch it before you left.”
“Sailors live on coffee, especially Snipes. Snipes are engineers. I was a Snipe. I was a Machinery Repairman.”
They heard a vehicle turn into the drive from the street. He checked his watch. Twelve forty. Pop was home from work. His dad, dressed in coveralls, came in through the kitchen door. He looked tired and much older than the last time Jessie had seen him. His face lit up with a smile, and he grabbed Jessie and gave him a squeeze. He said, “You look good Boy, it is great to see you.”
Jessie’s mom brought the food to the table, poured coffee for them and they sat to eat. Pop said, “Mabel, I’ve got an appointment at the mortgage company in Omaha at ten o’clock tomorrow. I’ll have to leave here at six thirty. Make sure I am awake. We’ve got enough money to pay seven hundred dollars. We have made the last two payments, and hopefully, they’ll rescind the foreclosure and let us stay here as long as we can keep up the payments. I’m going to take a shower and get into bed. Jessie, we’ll catch up later.”
His dad left the table and went up the stairs. His mom watched him go and said, “He comes home so tired, he was a supervisor at the factory and wasn’t used to doing the hard work that he is doing now. I don’t know how much longer he can keep doing it. You look tired too, son. Why don’t you go to bed? There’s cereal and milk for your breakfast. Your dad will leave early and so will I. I have to work the opening shift as cashier at the Woolworth cafeteria. So I’ll see you later in the day tomorrow. Good night Jessie and welcome home.”
“Good night, Mama. If I’m not here when you get home, I’ll probably be downtown. I am going to look around and see who I can find,” Jessie said as he moved toward the stairs. He climbed to his room and removed clean underwear from the seabag and headed for the shower. Afterward, he relaxed in his bed. He was finally home. The homecoming was different than he had envisioned, but he was home. That is what counted. He opened the L’Amour western and was asleep before he had read half a page.
Jessie awakened to the sound of his father going down the steps. He heard voices from downstairs as his parents were talking over breakfast. He looked at the time. Almost six. He dozed off and reawakened to silence in the house. He brushed his teeth and went to get dressed. For some reason, the jeans from his closet seemed tighter and shorter than he remembered. Really uncomfortable. He dressed in the jeans he had been wearing since Treasure Island and went down for breakfast.
Afterward, Jessie decided to walk and look at the place in the daytime. He strolled down Emery toward main. The lawns were grown over. It looked even more like an abandoned ghost town in the daylight. He could hardly believe this was where he had played and grown up.
He turned on main and walked the long block to Epperson’s Hardware or, as it turned out, the building that was once the hardware store. It was now boarded up with a torn, water stained, deteriorated sign that said “Commercial Space for Lease,” hanging from a single nail.
The building that had been the post office was also boarded up. He knew the post office had closed and the postal district incorporated into that of the adjoining county. He walked through the entire town. The only place that seemed open was the diner on the corner of Watson and Main.
He walked into the diner and sat at the counter. A young woman came from the kitchen and said, “What can I get you? Jessie! Jessie! Is that you? Are you home for a visit? You remember me, don’t you? Lorraine Stevenson, well, Gridley now. I was a year ahead of you in school.”
“Hi, Lorraine. Sure I remember you. Did you marry Todd Gridley?”
“No his older brother, Rodney. We got married when he came home from the Air Force. Things have changed a lot around here in the last year. Most of the people are leaving. I don’t know how long the town will last. I don’t know how much longer the Donelson’s will keep this place open. The only other place that is still operating is Pop’s Taproom. Oh yeah, the grocery store is still open but will probably be closing too. Look at me talking. Can I get you something to eat or drink?”
“Just a cup of black coffee. Is Betty Ross still around? We use to date before I enlisted.”
“She was going to the Community College for a while and left with some guy she met there. I think they are living in Omaha. Her folks moved up there also. Rodney and I will probably go too, that is if he can find a better job there.”
A man and woman entered the diner and Lorraine left to take their order and prepare their meals. Jessie finished the coffee and left a dollar under the cup. He waved to Lorraine as he departed the eatery. He walked to the corner of Watson and started that way. There were more boarded up buildings and houses, more untended lawns, a sense of something that was no longer there. He walked around the town, noting that the Iverson’s grocery store was still open. It looked as if the Diner, the grocery store, and Pop’s Taproom were the only businesses still operating in the town. As he walked back toward Emery Street, he came to the Taproom just as Pop was opening the door.
“Are you open sir?” he asked.
“Yep. Welcome.” As he held the door for Jessie. “What can I get for you?”
“A draft of whatever you have available.
“Wait, I remember you. Your name is Jess. I threw you out of here once. You came in with a fake ID that you had manufactured and tried to buy beer. You weren’t too bright. Eight hundred people in the town, everyone knew you, and you thought you could get by with a fake ID. We had a couple of laughs about that one. That was a long time ago. I’m sure you are of age now.”
“Glad all you guys were amused,” Jessie said sheepishly. “I guess it wasn’t too smart. Tell me, what happened with the factory. All I’ve heard is that they closed and let everyone go. How can something like that just happen?”
“One of the Vice Presidents used to be a customer, and he told me what happened. The owners of the company went public and sold stock in the company. A predatory group of investors bought a controlling interest in the company. They started stripping the assets and selling them off; they closed the factory letting everyone go, then sold all the equipment to a company in Central America. Without a union to represent them, the workers didn’t even get their outstanding or severance pay. All they can do is make a claim in the bankruptcy court and maybe somewhere in the future; they will get a few cents on the dollar. It’s a shitty situation. Most of the people have moved away. I will be closing at the end of the month and moving up to Omaha myself. The diner and grocery will both be closing pretty soon also.”
“Pretty shitty at that! My Mom and Dad are going to lose their house unless he can catch up the mortgage payments.”
“Well, I wish them luck, but the mortgage companies and banks are being pretty strict unless payments are kept current. It’s hard. Me, I will probably close this place by the end of the year, I am barely breaking even. When the beer distributor closes, and I have to buy from a distributor from Omaha, the beer will cost more. If it wasn’t for my Army pension. I couldn’t have stayed in business this long. You want another?”
“No, I don’t think so,” answered Jessie. “I’ve got to go see a guy about a truck.
Jessie walked down to Donnie’s house and saw his truck. He figured Donnie would have finished his bakery deliveries and would be at home. He went to the back door and knocked on the wall by the screen door. Donnie stuck his around the corner from the kitchen and said, “Hey Jess, come on in.”
Jessie opened the door and went into the kitchen where Donnie was eating a sandwich.
Donnie asked, “Jess, you want a Co’ Cola?”
“No, thanks, Donnie. I stopped by to ask if you’ll lend me your truck tomorrow. I need to run up to Omaha to see about a job. I’ll pay you twenty bucks and bring it back with a full tank of gas if you’ll let me use it.”
“Sure you can use it. Come to the bakery at seven in the morning and pick it up. I’ll leave the key on top of the left rear tire like we used to do. I hate to take your money, but I really need it to help Mama make the house payments. Ever little bit helps.” Donnie said embarrassedly.
“Thanks, man. I really appreciate this.” Jessie replied. “Well, I gotta go. Dad should be back from Omaha pretty soon. I want to be home when he gets back.”
Jessie walked the four blocks to his house. His mom was standing looking out the front door as he walked down the drive. She stepped out onto the porch and said. “Jessie, your father ought to be back anytime. I hope he gets here in time to rest a little before he goes to work at four. Have you had something to eat Son.”
“Yeah, I’m fine Mama,” as he walked up the three steps to the porch.
She said, “I’m glad you are home, Jessie. I just wish things were better. There’s your daddy’s truck now.”
They watched as the truck turned into the drive and stopped beside the house. His Dad climbed out of the truck and walked around to the steps and came onto the porch. He told them, “They said unless we can catch the payments up, they will foreclose, but we can rent the house for the amount of the payments until they can sell it. I guess the best thing to do is move; we can rent a house for a lot less than the seven hundred dollars we would have to pay to stay here.”
“Oh, Jim,” his mother said as tears began to run down her cheeks. “This is our home. Jessie was eight when we moved in here from my Daddy’s rental house. We were so glad that we could afford to buy a house. Now it’s all gone.” She turned and went into the house sobbing.
His dad said to Jessie, “That tears my guts out and there ain’t a damned thing I can do. Hell of a homecoming for you Boy.”
Jessie, looking at his Dad’s face said, “Things will work out Pop. You got to believe that. You got a couple of hours before work, and you were up early this morning. You ought to get a little rest.”
“You’re right, Son. We’ll have some time in a few days. Have you thought about what you are going to do?”
“I borrowed Donnie’s truck and am going to Omaha tomorrow about finding work.”
“Two more days until Saturday, then we’ll have some time to talk and catch up, Jessie. Well, I’m going to lay down for awhile.
They walked into the house and on into the kitchen where his mom was preparing his father’s lunch and a snack to take to work. She asked, “Would you like something, Jessie?”
“No, Mama, I am meeting a couple of guys downtown and will get something at the diner,” Jessie fibbed. “I’ll be back before nine or ten.”
Jessie left the house and walked down to the diner. Lorraine was still behind the counter when he walked in and took a booth. She walked around the end of the counter, handed him a menu and asked if he wanted something to drink. He handed the menu back and asked her to bring him a hamburger, fries and a coke.
Jessie sat waiting and then shrugged as if he had reached a decision on a pressing matter.
Lorraine brought his meal and realizing that he wasn’t in the mood for conversation and returned to her post behind the counter. Jessie quickly finished eating, left a buck tip under his plate and went to the counter to pay his bill. He told Lorraine, “I am going up to Omaha tomorrow about a job. I was hoping to stay here, but it doesn’t seem possible.”
“We’ll probably be following you soon.”
Jessie walked down to the Taproom. There was only one other customer, and he was leaving as Jessie entered. Pop said, “Come in Jess. I was thinking about closing, but I’ll stay here as long as you would like. I don’t have anything else to do, and I have done it so long that I can’t go to sleep until about two in the morning.”
Jessie sat and talked with Pop for a couple of hours and then went on home. His mother was sleeping on the couch waiting for his dad to come home shortly after midnight. Jessie went up to his room, found his old alarm clock and set it for six, brushed his teeth and went to bed. He lay awake for a while thinking over his decision and decided again it was the best thing to do.
The noise of his mother getting up awakened Jessie about five minutes before the alarm was set to wake him. He showered, shaved, brushed his teeth, and went down for a cup of coffee before going over to the bakery to get the truck.
His mom said, “Jessie, you are up early. Do you want coffee? I have instant. That’s what I drink when I am working early instead of making a pot. Do you want something to eat? I’m afraid you’ll have to fix it yourself. Your Dad said you are going to Omaha to look for work. Well, good luck. I have to go. I am opening this morning.”
“Instant will be fine. I’ll just have one of these Pop Tarts. I have to go pick up Donnie’s truck. I should be home by five this evening. I’ll see you then.”
After his mom had left, Jessie went to the drawer where she kept her bills and important papers and recorded some numbers in his “Wheel book,” a memoranda notebook.
Jessie left the house and walked over to the bakery arriving there about seven-thirty. The key was on top of the tire as promised, he started the truck and headed toward the highway.
A long day later, Jessie dropped the truck at Donnie’s house. He tapped on the edge of the door, and his Aunt Liz came to the door and said, “Hey Jessie, come on in. Donnie’s not here. Mrs. Lawson called him to come over and fix a hole in her chicken lot where the chickens are getting out. He ought to be home pretty soon.”
“That’s fine. I just wanted to bring his truck back. I know he needs it early. Here are the key and the twenty I promised. Tell him I filled the tank. And tell him I said thanks for letting me use it.”
Jessie stopped at the diner on the way home and had a hamburger steak and a couple of cups of coffee. Afterward, he walked on home. His mom was napping on the couch. Jessie went up to his room and dumped the seabag out looking for his sewing kit. He had some sewing to do.
The next morning was Saturday. His father and mother didn’t have to work. Jessie got dressed but stayed in his room until he heard them up and moving around. When he heard them in the kitchen, Jessie walked down the stairs into the kitchen.
They watched him as he poured a cup of coffee. His mom asked, “Why are you wearing your Navy clothes?” she asked.
Jessie sat down at the table and said, “I went to the Navy recruiter in Omaha yesterday and re-enlisted in the Navy.” He laid the papers he was carrying on the table and said, “I went to the bank that owns the mortgage on this house and paid it up to date, and I made the next payment. Mama, you don’t have to leave your home.”
“Jessie we can’t ask you to use your money. But, you so looked forward to leaving the Navy and coming home, and now you used the money you had saved to pay for our home. Why?” She said with tears streaming down her cheeks.
“Mama better to use the money to keep the home. That way I will have someplace to visit while on leave. I would probably just have pissed it away. After seeing what has happened to the town and people since the factory closed, I realized that the town and home I was dreaming of no longer existed. To find a job to pay for a comfortable life means I would have to leave here anyway. I have been dreaming of coming home and missed understanding that I liked the Navy and the life of a sailor. Also, I miss my friends on the ship. “
“When I talked to the recruiter about going back in, he called the personnel people in Washington and found that I am authorized for promotion to MR2. He got it fixed, so I re-enlisted as a Second Class Petty Officer. I got thirty days leave, and then I will go back to Treasure Island in San Francisco for orders. I asked to go back to the ship I just left. After talking with Pop down at the Taproom, I am thinking a military career is good. I think it is best this way Mama.”
His mother pulled him into an embrace and his father’s arms surrounded them both.