Tess and Jack
Updated: Dec 26, 2019
Tess and Jack
By J. Matthew Smith
He could not stand the sound she made when she ate cereal. It was as if she were chewing a mouthful of rocks. Every spoonful that made its way into her mouth consisted of what seemed like an eternity of crunches; each one so loud and grating that — even though she sat across the room — it was as if her mouth was positioned just a fraction of a centimeter from his ear. He’d sit in his lounger, trying with all he had to refrain from making a comment. But she could feel his contempt, and inevitably, he’d turn the volume up on the television, making his disgust as clear as day.
“Sorry,” she said, exasperated and with significant disgust of her own. “Goddamn it, you’re such an asshole.”
“What?” he said, feigning ignorance. “I’m just sitting here. I didn’t say a word.”
“You didn’t have to, Jack. Your face said it all.”
She angrily arose from the couch and walked with her bowl of cereal into the kitchen where she sat at the table. But only seconds later, she returned, without her cereal, to the living room where he was sitting.
“I’m so sorry my eating disgusts you,” she said pointedly, without a single shred of sincerity. “Just to let you know, though, there’s plenty that you do that disgusts me, too.”
“Alright, alright,” he protested. “Can we just avoid this fight and move on? Seriously — can we just have some peace for once?”
“No, Jack, we can’t. And that’s easy for you to say, since you weren’t the one who was being made to feel like some kind of nuisance for doing absolutely nothing. Jesus, Jack, I was just sitting there eating some cereal and trying to watch some TV with you. I’m so sorry you find me so irritating.”
“Oh for Christ sakes,” he exclaimed.
“Christ sakes, you,” she said, realizing that made no sense, but knowing too that she was too pissed off to care. “Just so you know, you disgust me every night when we’re in bed. Your snoring; it sounds like I’m lying next to a wildebeest. And if that weren’t bad enough, then you lay there and gag, like you’re going to die.”
“I’d never be that lucky, Tess. I must have been a real bastard in my prior life because I’m paying for it in this one.”
“I have news for you, Jack: You’re still a bastard. And, I’m the one paying, not you.”
“Yeah, you sure are, Tess. What is it, the nice house you live in; is that how you’re suffering? Or is it your nice car out in their driveway? Shit, you really have it rough. How do you do it? How do you keep going?”
“None of that matters, Jack. None of it. That’s all just stuff. Stuff doesn’t bring you happiness. Or peace. Love, Jack, that’s what matters. It’s love that matters, you stupid jackass.”
“Love? I wouldn’t know anything about that. Misery maybe. In fact, without a doubt, I know all about misery. But certainly not love.”
“You know where the door is, Jack, and you are welcome to use it anytime.”
“You’d love that, wouldn’t you? Well, tough, I’m staying. It’s too late. You stole thirty years from me; I’m too old to walk now. There’s nothing out there for me. Besides, if my staying makes you miserable, then I’m not going anywhere.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful. You’re staying for spite.”
“Yeah, I guess I am.”
It wasn’t always like this. Really. There was a time Tess and Jack laughed; in fact, did nothing but laugh. He could remember like it was yesterday. They would climb into his old Chevy pickup and drive along the lake, the wind whipping in Tess’s hair through the open passenger-side window. Along the way they’d take in the massive and stately colonials built along the water — where doctors and lawyers and politicians lived — pointing out the ones they liked best and dreaming together aloud of the lakefront manor they themselves would live in one day. These rides would always end at Kev-Lin’s ice cream stand, where’d they open the gate of Jack’s truck and climb up into the bed with their cones to sit to and behave like a young couple in love — laughing, kissing and laughing some more. There, in Jack’s pickup, they’d dream and plan and look forward to the future. Their vision was grand and their ambition, boundless. What they had failed to consider, however, was that life often moved faster than dreams. Life is what happens when a baby comes along unexpectedly. And life is what happens when such unexpectedness results in responsibility that brings about a forceful change in one’s priorities. Indeed, life can happen fast. And, as Jack discovered, when it does, life can also quickly get away from you. The responsibilities multiply. Opportunities diminish. The years disappear, one into the next. Still, you handle it. You do what needs to be done. You play the hand you’re dealt and you make the best of it. And that — like everyone else — is just what Tess and Jack did. Their hopes and dreams — visions of grandeur really, which, in retrospect, were merely the silly hopes and dreams inspired more by youthful ambition as opposed to mature wisdom — did not materialize. But their life together was hardly bad. Their bond was thick and the life and family they built together was stable. Their kids, now grown and gone, had all done well for themselves. And in the end, that’s all that really mattered.
Tess was still in the kitchen, sitting at the table and perusing the circulars that came as part of Sunday’s newspaper.
“Hey, is my jacket there at the table on one of the chairs?” Jack asked.
“Can you check my pocket to see if I have any cigars left? They’d be in the chest pocket on the right side.”
“Oh, brother,” Tess grumbled. “Hold on, let me check.” She grabbed the jacket off the chair and started to rummage through it. “You shouldn’t be smoking these Goddamn things. I think they’re a big reason why you snore so loud.”
“Oh Jesus Christ, here we go again with the snoring,” Jack said. “Give it a rest, would you?”
“I’m just saying. I think these stupid things are a big reason you snore and can’t breathe at night — not to mention they make you smell awful. You smell like a dirty ash tray after smoking one of these horrible things.”
“I smell fine,” Jack protested. “Besides, why the hell should my snoring bother you anyway? Most of the time I have to sleep out here on the couch because the dog is in bed, taking up my side. I can’t ever get him to move, either, the stupid fat-ass son-of-a-bitch. Look how fat you made him, will you? Feeding him all those table scraps, which you know he ain’t supposed to have. He has to be thirty-five, if not forty, pounds overweight from all the crap you give him. Christ sakes.”
“You leave that dog alone. He’s a good boy.”
“A good boy… My God, you complain about my smell and yet, there you are in bed every night with this obese creature, who’s usually facing the end of the bed with his ass sticking in your face. And that’s not even mentioning the cat, who usually is laying on your chest.”
“I swear to God, you care more about those animals than you do me.”
“The animals don’t complain,” Tess said.
“That’s because they aren’t married to you.”
“Well, like I told you before, mister: You know where the door is. You’re welcome to walk out any time you want.”
Jack laughed to himself and shook his head. If he had a dime for every time he heard her say that, he thought to himself.
“Speaking of the walking out that door,” Tess said, “Don’t forget you have a doctor’s appointment in a half hour. You better get going.”
“Oh shit,” said Jack. “I completely forgot. Thanks for reminding me.”
“No problem,” Tess said. “That’s what I do.”
And she was right. Ever since Jack retired from the plant following his heart attack, Tess had become his own personal manager (or, someone would say, handler). She reminded him what appointments he had each day, she kept track of his medication and reminded him when to take his pills, she made sure he got exercise, and saw to it eat that he ate healthy — at least as healthy as he was willing to eat. Jack, meanwhile, became more dependent on Tess. His health was not great and without a job to report to each morning, he was somewhat lost when it came to keeping himself occupied. He enjoyed having someone lookout for him. It was reassuring. Tess was not only equal to the task, she was grateful for it. It gave her purpose.
“I can’t remember shit these days,” Jack said, as he pulled his way up from his chair and headed toward the kitchen to grab his jacket.
“You never could,” Tess cracked. “You’ve been forgetful your whole life. I can’t tell you the number of times throughout the years I’d ask you to do something and you’d forget.”
“I didn’t forget,” Jack said. “I just didn’t listen. You never stopped talking.”
“If you don’t shut up,” Tess replied, “I’ll stop talking to you right now.”
After putting on his jacket, Jack asked Tess whether she knew where the keys were to his truck. She pointed to the counter without looking up from the newspaper.
“Thanks,” Jack said. “Alright then, I’m taking off.”
“Ok,” said Tess. “Drive carefully. And make sure you tell me what he says. Write it down if you have to so you don’t forget.”
“I will,” said Jack, and he walked over to where his wife was sitting and gave her a kiss.
“I love you,” Tess said.
“I love you, too,” said Jack.