Joyland

New York |

The Only One Who Could Ever Teach Me

by Jason Villemez

edited by Karina Leon

Jonah met Frank at the only restaurant in town, a family diner that served four-egg omelets and almost all parts of the cow. Eyes, bone marrow, tongue; things that neither man was brave enough to try. All the adventurous people had herded south to the cities, spurred by economic enchantments and the promise of nonstop flights to Orlando in winter. Jonah would never leave town, not now. He noticed the new tables and chairs on the patio, fresh caulk on the tile, paint on the walls, hopeful preparations for a summer of good business. 

Frank seemed friendly, like a person who warmed to others with ease, the type of person whose openness Jonah would have admired as a kid. He stuffed his napkin into his collar and used his hands freely as he spoke. He was always at the Rotary Club events with his wife, but Jonah had never mustered the courage to strike up a conversation. Jonah’s wife, Patsy, had always said that Frank looked lonely, that he seemed like a city person trapped in the country. After Patsy’s funeral, at the suggestion of a mutual friend, the men made plans to have supper.

Their server, a woman around their age, took their orders and rattled them off to the line cook: a ribeye with mashed potatoes for Frank and the broiled shrimp for Jonah. They had each driven themselves to the diner, but neither one had volunteered any conversation beyond that, the weather, and hello.

“So,” Frank said after a silence, “you keeping busy?”

“Trying to. I’ve got some projects going, but it seems to take me longer to finish them these days.” Jonah picked up his glass and set it to his lips, but didn’t sip anything. He put the glass back down and stared at the table. “It doesn’t feel right, being here without her,” he said.

Frank closed his eyes and nodded. “It’s been eight months for me since Ruth passed, and some days it hits me like a freighter. But I’m doing all right, got my wits about me, good pension, good health aside from that cholesterol pill. And I don’t have any hopes to live forever, so I’ll see her again. Just have to wait it out.”

Jonah didn’t say what came into his head, that if the waiting got too long he’d take matters into his own hands and snuff the flame out. Instead, he smiled and said he was jealous of how well Frank was adjusting.

“You’ll get there,” Frank replied.

That Jonah had come to the diner at all was a minor miracle. He’d spent most of the afternoon flitting between the shed and the backyard, hands occupied with the wood carver and the jig saw, hoping to find a good excuse to cancel, exhaustion or illness or accidental maiming. But by five o’clock, after sanding down and polishing an oak rocking chair, he figured it was too late to call it off. Frank was probably on his way. Jonah resigned himself, as he often did, to going out. He forced himself to smile in the mirror. He plucked a fresh, mildly creased shirt from the dryer and snatched his nice pair of pants from the closet, hoping they would still fit. He shaved the four-day-old stubble from his face, combed his stubborn hair and wiped clean from his teeth any remnants of the sandwich he had for lunch. By the time he grabbed the keys from the coffee table, he felt a tinge better. He looked more respectable than he had in weeks. He could reasonably claim that he was holding it together, that widowerhood was nothing but another of life’s many challenges that he was rising to meet.

A song began to play on the jukebox. The jukebox speakers were worn and seemed to spew out a layer of dust along with the music. Jonah closed his eyes for a moment and took in the horns, the drums, the hum of the singer’s opening notes.

“Patsy used to play this record all the time,” he said. “I forget the singer.”

“Dusty Springfield.” Frank smiled. “I like the Aretha Franklin version myself, but Ruth liked this one. She was so funny when it came on the radio. She used to dance in the kitchen singing preacher man, preacher man, bopping around with her hair let down. Sometimes it was like she couldn’t not dance, you know? Like she would’ve been overcome if she didn’t. Too much joy.”

Jonah didn’t know what too much joy meant. He took a piece of bread and dredged it along the sauce that pooled on the sides of his plate. It dripped down onto his pant leg and he shut his eyes in embarrassment. He’d never been the tidiest eater.

“You enjoying yourself there?” Frank asked.

“Sorry,” Jonah said, swallowing his food whole and dabbing his napkin with water. “I don’t cook much, so it’s nice to have something that doesn’t taste like the back of the microwave.” He hadn’t been to the diner in over a year. Aside from the grocery and the lumberyard, he hadn’t gone anywhere.

“How about grilling?”

“Don’t have one.”

“Really? No fooling?” Frank put his hand to his heart and chuckled. “Well, then, we’ve got to get you one, my friend. I don’t believe it. Every man has to have a grill. You can even get a small one that fits in your kitchen.” He measured a shoebox span between his fingers. “Like the one George Foreman sold a while ago. You can put almost anything in them, even those shrimp you’re eating. Sprinkle some seasoning and water and you’re golden. Man, you’ve never grilled before?”

“Patsy did most of the cooking,” Jonah said.

“Yeah, but she never wanted you to cook up some steaks? That was Ruth every Sunday, relaxing with her letter set while I fixed some prime cuts.”

“She never asked me to cook. Most of the time she just let me fool around in the shed until dinner.” Jonah felt bad that he never asked if she wanted a grill. He wondered if she’d secretly held it against him.

“Do you fix up cars?”

“I made furniture, for a while, sold pieces wholesale to the warehouse on Baker Street. But now I just carve things. I made a chess set the other day, and a board.” He swiped up the last of his bread and stuffed it in his mouth. “I used to play with Patsy.”

“Well, I never learned how. Seems too complex for me. I just stick to checkers.”

“It’s not that different, really. Just more types of pieces.”

Frank finished his beer and plopped the glass on the table. “Hey, Jonah, how about this: let’s take a drive to that big value store in West Falls next week and get you that tabletop grill. I’ll show you how to cook up some steaks and you can show me how to play chess. Trade for trade. I doubt I’ll understand all the rules, but it’ll be fun, to use my brain for more than just fishing.”

The last time Jonah and Patsy played chess together, Patsy had missed an easy checkmate. Jonah had tried his hardest to ensure her victory, so he made foolish moves, sacrificing his major players while leaving his pawns for the last laugh. Near the end of the game Patsy grew too tired to pick up the pieces and had to tell Jonah what moves to make for her. Jonah asked if they should just pause for now and get back to it in the morning or the next day or whenever happened to be good. But Patsy demanded they finish. It wouldn’t be the same, she said, picking up the game after so long a break. It wouldn’t be fun with the moment left incomplete. A waste of time, to do things halfway. That evening, when they lay together in bed, Jonah regretted not saying anything in that moment, not saying that Patsy had never lived her life halfway, not saying that he was proud of her for committing to her work and her home and the marriage which seemed to please her in ways he could not comprehend. It was true: she had found ways to be happy. And yet even with her right there for him to observe, to mimic, to reflect, he never learned how do the same.

 “Sure,” Jonah finally said to Frank. “A lesson for a lesson. Why not.” 

*

It was amazing how quickly Jonah had slipped back into bachelorhood. He brought the stepladder up from the basement and changed the light bulb above the porch. He and Patsy used to sit outside and read books or watch the birds or whatever happened to pass through, but toward the end she couldn’t do anything but recline on the couch or lie in bed. Jonah never liked to be more than a few feet away in case she needed something. After checking the light, he swept the front steps, mowed the lawn and tidied the shed. He doubted that Frank would care to see his workspace, nor would he purposely take him there, but cleaning it gave Jonah a sense of peace. If he died suddenly, at least things would be organized. He swept up the flecks of balsa and dumped them into the trash. He pushed all the unused lumber stacks against the wall, next to the array of saws and hammers that he conducted as carefully as he did his waking life. The half-finished bookstand, he decided, could stay in the center of the workspace. If need be, he would feel no shame in showing that one off.

Inside he vacuumed, dusted. It had been quite some time since he hosted someone at the house. Had he ever? Their visitors had always come for Patsy. The living room and dining room were sparsely decorated. Chairs, table, couch, television. The books remained; Jonah thought he might read them someday. In a fit of grief he had eviscerated the wall-to-wall cabinets and placed the fine china, porcelain figurines and antique vases into boxes. The tchotchkes made Patsy happy, but Jonah had never cared for them, and now they only reminded him of her, of all the catalogs she pored over, of the way she beamed when she saw one in a shop window. 

He’d used oak and mahogany for the chess pieces, his subtler version of white and black, and even though the oak was not white and the mahogany nowhere near black, he did not stain them. They were what they were. It would be a shame to cover them up. He buffed the pieces with a polishing cloth and lined them up on the board, then picked up the whole thing and put it on the stand by the window. Light bounced off the curves of the brown bishop and the eyes of the knight’s horse. Jonah looked out onto the driveway, past the dusty little hill that led to the main road. He prepared himself for Frank’s car to emerge, growing larger and larger like a charging animal.

He forced himself to have lunch. He tucked a napkin into his shirt collar and sat down with a microwave meal. The steam coming up off the container wafted to the ceiling, circling the glass lamp Patsy had bought at a novelty shop in New Mexico. Jonah cut into the turkey and chewed slowly. The gravy was salty, the potatoes dry, but he continued to eat because he was always better on a full stomach. It didn’t much matter how he got there, so long as he consumed enough to get through the day, to properly hide his nervousness at having his first visitor since Patsy, since ever.

*

Frank picked Jonah up in the afternoon, right on time. “We’ll need to get a cart,” he said when they arrived at the store. “The grills aren’t heavy, but they’re bulky. Come boxed in all kinds of plastic and Styrofoam, like the whole thing will explode if you drop it.” 

The wheels squeaked up and down the aisles. Jonah pushed while Frank commented on all the accouterments that matched up well with steak. Coca-Cola with bourbon, lemons and black pepper, red wine and shallots. “But strawberry jam,” Frank said as they passed the spreads, “should be used only for toast.” Jonah chuckled.

“Honestly, the best thing to use is plain steak sauce.” Frank held up a bottle and dropped it into the cart. “Just spread it all over and it really doesn’t matter what else you do. Sometimes the simplest solutions are the best. I think someone famous said that. I was never good at learning other people’s words.”

They got two prime cuts from the butcher and found the tabletop grills in the appliance aisle. Jonah flipped through a cooking magazine, reading the names of spices he didn’t recognize: turmeric, coriander, ancho. He wondered if Patsy had ever used these in her cooking and he’d simply never thought to ask if that’s what made the food taste so good. Frank squatted down to read one of the grill labels, his knees cracking as he rose.

“Now, you shouldn’t go by cost,” he said. “Go by temperature and insulation.” He pointed to the bulleted list on the box. “725 degrees, triple wall body. This one’s a quality grill. For you, my friend.” He handed it to Jonah to inspect. It looked like a silver briefcase laid on its side. Aside from the microwave it would be the most high-tech item in the kitchen. Jonah dropped it in the cart.

“Sounds good to me. I wouldn’t know any better.”

“What kind of flavor do you want? Sweet, savory, little kick, little spice. What’s your pleasure? There’s no wrong answer here, unless you say you want it to taste like pudding. I’m not a magician.”

“Do you have a recommendation?”

Frank put his hand on Jonah’s shoulder. “I got you covered. We’ll do a rub. Little bit fancier than the steak sauce. Brown sugar, salt, pepper. Simple. Do you have those already?”

 “All but the sugar. I don’t eat much sweet stuff.”

“Trust me, this will be good. Like dinner and dessert in one.”

At the register Jonah pulled out his wallet and flipped through the plastic sleeves for the credit card. 

“I got it, buddy,” Frank said. “It’s on me. It was my idea.”

“No, no, I should pay.” Jonah pulled out the card and showed it to Frank.

“Your money’s no good here.” Frank swiftly fished out some cash and counted out eighty dollars. “All set,” he said as he passed the money to the cashier. Jonah sighed. He felt a little less of a man, but said nothing more. They returned to the car.

On the way back to Jonah’s house they passed by the Rotary Club lodge, the town’s cultural center and primary meeting place. Every Sunday after church both of their wives would meet the other Club members to have punch and gossip about whatever news item happened to have the community’s ear: new book donations for the library, the four-way intersection that needed a stoplight, threats of fracking underneath all the farmland. The Club hosted community meetings, monthly dances, and bingo every Friday. Patsy’s memorial was held there. Jonah followed her instructions down to the dress she wore and the colors lining the casket. He shook the hands of people far more upset than he, people whom he didn’t know, acquaintances of Patsy, friends of Patsy, former colleagues of hers at the phone company. He didn’t know any of them. She was a gem of a person, they’d said, she’d been good to him. He would be in their prayers. Patsy laid out all her important documents beforehand. Jonah did what was required with them—mailed out the death certificates, canceled her credit cards—and tried to put everything else out of his mind. It took him a month to sleep in their bed again.

In the living room, Frank picked up the mahogany rook. “These are amazing, my friend. It looks like something you’d buy in a store. Better.” He set the piece down and walked around. “Is this her?” he said, pointing to a picture between the windows.

It was the photo displayed next to her casket, her last look, the way Jonah wanted to remember her: thirty years old, holding back a smile and standing over her garden of salvia, iris, peony, all of which had turned to dust in the summertime since they no longer had a keeper. At the service, the photo sat on a wooden easel that Jonah made for one of her birthdays after she suggested they try painting. When he gave the eulogy, he had to stop himself from turning to look at her.

“She loved that garden,” Jonah said. “She used to say that it sucked up the calamity I made from the shed—you know, the banging, the drilling, the crashing—and filtered it all out. When she was out there she said the only sound she could hear was the hum of her own voice and whatever made her happy that day. She’d come in after a day’s work, hands all sweaty and caked with soil, and she would sing as she washed them under the tap.”

“You got a good one,” Frank said.

“She was.”

Jonah admired her ability to change, to feel as comfortable caked in dirt in the yard as she was donning a fancy dress for afternoon tea. He often told her, on those long porch nights watching nothing, that people aren’t more than one thing, not really. Some are just better at pretending, at switching themselves in order to fit in. Oh, sweetheart, she would say, you don’t always have to pretend, you can have more than one thing that makes you happy. But he didn’t think so. He had Patsy. He couldn’t have any other life. He didn’t deserve anything more.

“Should we check on the steaks?” Jonah asked Frank.

“Not yet. But you can cut one open if you’re curious. I think a few more minutes should do the trick. We’ll be able to smell when they’re ready.”

Jonah could already smell them. When it came to wood he found that scent was even more important than sight. Whether planks were fresh or rotting was most quickly and easily determined by their odor. Wafting through the living room, the brown sugar was obvious, then the char of the meat, then a flurry of other traces. He exhaled. All was well. He watched Frank inspect the shelves of books, carvings, photos, and stood ready to answer any questions: the history of objects, the most potent memories of this trip or that, the defense of everything he had done and not done.

“Lot of nice photos of the two of you.” Frank said, going back and forth along the rows as if tracing a puzzle.

“Patsy liked my picture frames. We had to fill them with something.” 

“You make a good couple.”

Made, Jonah thought but didn’t say out loud. He wasn’t sure if what Frank said was true. He hoped it was. He hoped he did right by her. He’d tried his best.

Jonah prayed that he would be the one to go first. Patsy would have all her friends to keep her busy. She could turn the shed into a greenhouse, or an indoor garden, or she could just sell the house and travel, meet new people, do all the things Jonah never wanted to do. He wouldn’t be holding her back anymore, and she would no longer have to worry all the things he felt but would never say. Jonah knew she would make the best use of her time. She would do something about her wanderlust; she would sate her curiosities. She would not be afraid.

She’d asked him, near the end, to promise her that he would find someone else, someone to be with so that he wouldn’t be alone. A spouse, a lover, a friend. Impossible, Jonah said. He wouldn’t do that, he couldn’t. Starting over was not an option. He was too deep into this rhythm, too far taken from things like romance and attraction and the guts to welcome them open-armed. And in truth, it was her who approached him, her who asked him on that first date, her who proposed to him when he was doubting himself and all he could give to her. When they married, he didn’t have to worry anymore. He was safe. But again she repeated herself in the same labored tone, find someone. He told her with a pain in his chest that he would try.

“I think the steaks are ready,” Frank said, snapping Jonah from his daze. “Let me give them a look over.”

*

It was the best meal Jonah had eaten in months. “You’re a mighty fine cook,” he said, savoring a few final bites. “You really are. I think I’m getting the better end of this deal. Learning chess won’t be nearly as good as this.”

“Hey, you never know,” Frank said. “Maybe I’ll take a shine to it. The next Bobby Fisher, sitting right here.” He brought their plates to the sink, rinsed his hands and patted them against the back of his jeans. “Shall we?”

They moved into the living room. Jonah turned off the overhead lights and switched on the lamp at the windowsill. Frank sat down at the mahogany side, staring curiously at the different shapes. He raised his hands up as if he’d been caught lurking somewhere he shouldn’t have.

“Go easy on me, okay?”

They began with the pawns, moving them up and down the board until they were deadlocked, then the higher pieces, the arc of the knight, the slide of the rooks and bishops, the steely resolve of the king. Frank liked the queen the best. His first instinct was to go in guns blazing and use her to take down several of Jonah’s underlings, but Jonah convinced him that such a reckless plan would flame out. He needed to be more patient, more strategic, more concerned with the long run than any immediate pleasure. But Frank was unmoved. He accepted the lady’s sacrifice. Still, after a dozen moves, suggested moves, and repeated explanations of the name and function of each piece, Jonah had successfully placed himself in checkmate. 

“See?” he told Frank. “You’re a natural.”

Frank threw his head back and savored a deep laugh. “Put her there,” he said. In celebration of his remarkable victory, he reached across the table. His hand was hairier than Jonah’s and he still wore his wedding ring. His fingernails were clean and cut and smooth, obviously belonging to someone who didn’t do much handiwork. His palm was warm.

 “You’re a good teacher.” He smiled and walked to the kitchen, reappearing a few seconds later with two beers. “Ahh, forgot the bottle opener.” He turned around, but Jonah quickly cut him off.

“I got it.” Jonah grabbed one of the bottles, dried it with his shirt, and twisted the cap off in one fluid motion. He passed it to Frank, who stared at him in awe before handing him the other one.

“That must really cut up your hand,” Frank said.

“No. It’s just in the wrist. And my hands are immune to most things, really. One time I sanded off my thumbprint by accident.”

“Well, shit. Here’s to your health.”

They drank in silence, accompanied only by the occasional gargle of pipes and tic of the grandfather clock behind them. At times Frank would hum a song that Jonah didn’t recognize and tap his chair in tandem. Jonah couldn’t think of anything more to bring up; all the mutual things they could talk about had been said, yet he still wanted more. He finished his beer and put the bottle onto the square coaster etched from maple. Droplets formed a moat around the edges. 

“You two had a good life together,” Frank said. “What did you like most?”

Jonah opened his mouth but no words came out. Nobody had asked him that question before, not even Patsy herself. But it was one he often drifted to on the sleepless nights, the ones where he almost couldn’t bear the wrong he felt he’d committed by marrying her. He looked up at the ceiling, then at the wall he had put up when they first bought the house, when building was still only a hobby for him.

“She loved me enough to let me be alone, but I was never lonely.”

Frank smiled. He sighed and put his hands in his lap. “The two of you didn’t want any kids?”

“I wouldn’t have been much good at it. Never got used to telling people what to do. I’d have messed it up. Then we got used to it being just us two. We had our rhythms. I liked making things for her. I gave her something for all her birthdays, and our anniversaries. I made her this table and chair set when she turned thirty-five.”

“Amazing,” Frank said. He ran his fingers along the spindle, down the arms. “They look brand new. Can’t believe they’ve lasted this long.”

“Well, wood can last a while, if you take care of it right.”

“Sounds like you would have been a good father.”

Jonah shook his head. A good father has to tell the truth.

Frank got up from his chair and picked up their empty bottles. Jonah heard his footsteps treading lightly towards the kitchen. He could not remember the last time someone other than Patsy had complimented him.

“Frank,” Jonah said.

“What was that?” He turned around. “You all right there?”

Jonah said nothing. He breathed heavily, perhaps from fear, from the primordial fight or flight that he had learned to suppress. Frank ran back and knelt in front of him, their eyes level. He waved his hand in concern. Jonah did not look at him, but he forced the words out.

“I’m okay. I just…can I hold your hand, just for a second?”

Frank took an abrupt step back. “Oh.” He scanned the room, the windows and doors, and patted his front pocket. He took another step back and bumped into the wall. He remained there.

“Please,” Jonah said softly. He looked at Frank, mired against the plaster, and held his gaze for the first time since they had met. Jonah saw the blue of his eyes. He was still, his expression flat. 

“Well, sure, buddy.”

Jonah placed his hand, palm up, above the center of the table. He held it shakily and kept the rest of his body still. He did not look away from it. He heard the creaks of the floor as Frank inched back to the chair and plopped down into the folds of the leather. He continued to stare at the ridges in his thumb, at the scar on the tip of his pinky. He waited until he saw Frank’s fingers slide in between his own, then closed his eyes. 

Jonah held Frank’s hand. He held it longer than a second. They remained there together, long enough for any two people. Long enough for a man sitting in the house he built himself, forty years ago, when he was young and sweet and scared. When he would do anything to survive what he might become. When he decided, one night in bed with his new wife, to make a permanent switch. One thing on and one thing off. The current washed over him. It was plenty.

*

In the morning, when Jonah finally rose and had his coffee on the porch, he looked through the window into the house: their dishes piled on the kitchen counter; the grill, caked with grease, left open like a crocodile mouth; the final position of their chess match, Frank’s rook and bishop staring down Jonah’s king. He walked inside and dragged the three players to their original positions. Something of Frank still lingered in the air. He paused for a moment, took a deep breath, and set the remaining pieces back on the board, back to how they were supposed to be.