Jasper married Hana in the summer. They bought a small house east of St. Paul,
and in their free time they played all sorts of games—checkers, chess, cribbage,
Scrabble—laughing at every move. They fit together like two puzzle pieces, and if you ever saw them, you’d swear those pieces were never cut apart in the first place. Two laughing, inseparable puzzle pieces. They were both twenty-four.
Three years later, Jasper came home from work and found Hana sitting in her chair facedown on the kitchen table. Her heart had stopped. They held the funeral that Sunday, friends and family arriving in all shades of black. They lowered Hana into the ground on the left side of the double plot Jasper had purchased from St. Matthew’s church, because she had slept on the left side of the bed.
Jasper quit his job at General Mills and took a new one at FasTech, a computer support company, where he worked the night shift from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., deciding that it would be much easier to sleep at the house during the day, when Hana wouldn’t have been there anyway.
Jasper opened the door to his house, the morning sun heating his neck. Inside was still dark, and would be kept that way so he could fall asleep. He hung his coat in the closet, took off his shoes and placed them directly beneath it. Then he went into the kitchen and made himself a vodka tonic. He put a frozen pizza in the oven and sat down on the couch to watch the morning news. Just before the weather came on, the doorbell rang.
Jasper glanced around, startled, then got up and opened the door.
“Jasper!” his mother, Tracy, said. She stood next to his father, Mike, and both of his older siblings, Tina and Mark. “We were afraid you’d be asleep,” she said. Both men wore suits and both women wore dresses, as if they were on their way back from church.
Jasper let them in.
“We thought you could use a surprise visit,” his father said.
“What for?” His parents had never stopped by before, at least not on a weekday, though he realized it was technically Saturday now. Still, to get both his brother and sister here at the same time was an act of coordination that Jasper couldn’t justify.
His mother stopped and pointed at the vodka tonic on the side table next to the couch. “This,” she said. “We thought a family intervention would be best.”
“Intervention for what?”
“Your drinking problem,” Tina said, stepping up to him and rubbing his arm.
“I don’t have a drinking problem.”
“Son,” his father said, “it’s seven in the morning. Anyone who drinks at seven in the morning has a problem. We just want to help.”
“I just got home from work.”
His mother picked up the vodka tonic and emptied it in the kitchen sink. The ice cubes clanked on the metal basin. “You can’t slip into this mode,” she said, rubbing her hands together as she walked back toward him. “I know it’s hard, but you have to stay strong.”
Tina sniffed the air. “Are you cooking something?”
“For breakfast?” Mark said. He folded his arms.
Jasper shook his head. “For dinner.”
His father sighed. “Let’s all sit down here and just talk for a minute.”
Jasper didn’t want to talk. He wanted to eat his pizza, drink a vodka tonic, and go to bed. He sat between his mother and father on the couch. Mark and Tina sat in chairs on his left. The oven dinged and Mark got up and pulled the pizza from the oven. He cut it into eight slices and set it on the coffee table in front of Jasper.
“There you go,” he said. Everyone watched Jasper, but he didn’t take a slice.
“Do you all really think I have a drinking problem?” Jasper folded his hands and held them between his knees.
“It is Saturday morning,” his father said. “I don’t know about you, but I haven’t had a drink on a Saturday morning since college.”
“Listen, honey,” his mother said. “We’re just looking out for your safety. You’re at a very vulnerable point in your life right now and we don’t want you to fall under any bad influences.”
Jasper felt as if his breathing were being constricted. “But don’t you see that this is my night?” he said. “I get up at seven p.m., get to work at eight p.m., eat lunch at one in the morning, come home at five a.m., eat dinner and have a drink, then bed at ten. That’s my schedule.”
“We know, son.”
His mother leaned in. “And we’re really proud of you getting that new job at, ah...”
“Right,” she said. “At FasTech. We’re really proud of you. You’re doing a great job there.”
“You’re pulling through better than anyone could have expected,” his father said. “We just want to make sure that you stay on the right track, and don’t throw it away when you’re this close to getting over all of it.”
You never get over it, Jasper thought. “I’m not an alcoholic,” he said.
“That’s what uncle Jim said, remember?” Tina said. “He kicked at fifty-one.”
Jasper stared at the steaming pizza sitting on the table in front of him, no longer hungry.
“Listen,” Jasper said after a deep breath. “Thank you for coming over, but I had a rough week and I just want to go to sleep.”
“All right, son,” his father said. “We understand.” He stood up. “We just wanted to let you know that we haven’t forgotten about you, and that we’re concerned for you.”
“Thank you.” Jasper rose and ushered them to the door.
“Call us,” Tina said, and Mark nodded.
“All right.” He opened the door.
“You might think about putting some of these games away also,” his mother said, indicating the Chinese checkerboard sitting on the small table on the opposite side of the family room, as well as the stack of games resting beneath it. The marbles still sat where he and Hana had left off a month earlier.
Sunday morning Jasper watched the news, waiting for sleep. The pizza from the day before sat cold and curled on the coffee table, but he didn’t have the energy to get up and throw it out. Just as his eyelids began drooping a knock on the door startled him upright. He hoped it wasn’t his family again, though he knew it could be no one else.
When he opened the door the light of the rising sun blinded him. A dark silhouette stood alone on his front step, though he couldn’t tell who it was.
“Tilson!” the man said. “How ya fricken doing?”
“Wes?” Jasper said.
“Thought I’d stop by and say hi.”
Wes’s head angled just in front of the sun so that Jasper could see him, the last college roommate he’d had before graduating. He hadn’t seen Wes since the wedding three years ago, though he hadn’t even wanted to invite him to that. He was a slob, and it looked like the last five years hadn’t changed anything. His birds’ nest hair blended down into his rats’ nest beard, which was long enough to cover the neck of his tie-dyed Grateful Dead t-shirt. He wore dark green cargo pants and sandals, with about twenty hemp ropes tied around his hairy ankles.
“Let’s shoot it for a while, huh?”
Jasper stood silent for a minute before he sighed and let Wes into his house.
“Fricken dark in here, man,” Wes said, scanning around. “Hey, pizza! Mind if a steal a slice?”
Jasper shrugged. “It’s old.”
“Ah, don’t worry about that.” Wes strode around the back of the couch to the coffee table. “Pizza ages almost as well as fine wine. Believe it.”
“Did my parents call you?”
Wes folded a plastic slice in half and pushed the whole thing into his mouth, then sighed, his eyes rolling up. “Just gorgeous,” he mumbled as he chewed.
Wes stared at him for a moment, then shrugged and smiled.
Jasper shook his head.
Wes sat down on the couch with a cushy thud, and Jasper saw nothing to do but sit with him.
“I’m not an alcoholic,” said Jasper.
Wes glanced at him, then smiled a gray-toothed grin. “Great,” he said. “I’m not a woman. Glad that’s out of the way.”
Memories of living with Wes seeped back into Jasper’s head, and he realized how nice it had been to finally move out of their apartment, which Hana had referred to as ‘Hell’s Anus’.
“Hey, Chinese checkers!” Wes said. “I love that game.”
“Don’t touch it,” Jasper snapped.
“Whoa,” Wes held up his hands. “What’s up?”
“Just don’t touch them.”
“All right, all right,” Wes said. “What ya watchin’?” Wes set the cardboard pizza tray on his lap.
Jasper leaned back against the couch. “The news.”
“Anything good ever happen?”
Wes inhaled another stiff slice. “Did Hana like watching the news?”
“I’m just curious,” Wes said, holding his hands out in defense. “Don’t take it the wrong way. I ain’t here to be your therapist or nothin’. I’m just talkin’.”
So Jasper told him. “No,” he said. “She hated the news.”
Wes nodded. “I knew it.”
Jasper glared at him.
“She never was the news-watchin’ type,” Wes said. “She always had the comedy channel on or something like that. The news probably put her to sleep. Am I right?”
Jasper nodded, but couldn’t say anything.
“Thought so,” Wes said. “Hey, you want a drink or something?”
Jasper cleared his throat. “It’s eight in the morning.” he said, though a drink sounded pretty good just then.
Wes waved a hand at him. “It’s Sunday,” he said. “The clock may as well be frozen at five.”
Jasper finally nodded. “All right,” he said.
“Great. You make ‘em today, I’ll make ‘em next time.”
Jasper made them both vodka tonics and they sat and watched the news. “Should I make another pizza?” Jasper said.
“You’re seriously a mind reader, Tilson.”
So Jasper threw a pizza in the oven. Then he sat back down on the couch. Wes slurped his drink every few seconds, and Jasper did the same.
“So what’s new?” Wes asked.
Jasper shrugged and shook his head. They both kept their eyes on the television.
“Your job good?”
“Good,” Wes said. He sucked a big gulp from his drink. “Say, why’d you take that job anyway? I thought you had a good gig up at the big food place?”
“It was all right,” Jasper said. “I just needed a change.” Before Hana’s death, Jasper had been a technical engineer at General Mills.
“I hear that. I was workin’ at this record shop once, and I dated this girl from there, but then when she called it off, I quit. Had to, ya know?”
Jasper nodded. He finished his drink and so did Wes, so Jasper made them each another one. The oven dinged and Jasper put the pizza on the coffee table.
“It isn’t aged like you like it,” Jasper said.
Wes glanced up at him. “Did you just make a joke, Tilson?”
Jasper smiled then, which felt like a betrayal. They ate the pizza and drank their drinks. When Jasper had sucked it down to the cubes, he set the glass on the coffee table, a little harder than he normally would have.
“I don’t know,” Wes said.
“Don’t know what?”
“I don’t know how you do it. Working all night and all. I sleep on the job as it is, but working all night? I don’t know if I’d ever be awake.”
“Once your head gets used to it, you don’t even think about it,” Jasper said. “The fact that it’s night, I mean.”
“That’s good, real good,” Wes said. “I imagine the hardest part must be the first day of the week, when you gotta get back into the swing of things.”
Jasper shook his head, which swam only a little. “No.
The hardest part is the weekends.”
“Just keepin’ on the schedule?”
“Sort of. Every weekend I’m awake all night. I hate being here at night.”
Jasper shook his head, then tried to take a sip from his empty glass. Wes began nodding slowly then, as if he understood.
A commercial came on for Bowflex featuring an athletic woman in a tight tank top and short shorts.
“You know what you need?” Wes said. “You need somethin’ like that.” He pointed at the screen as the girl did squats. “Just a nice piece of meat to ride around.”
“Shut up,” Jasper said.
“No, I’m serious, man. A slice of that would make everything sweet and—”
“I said shut the hell up!”
Wes froze. “All right, man, just chill it out for a sec.”
Jasper dropped his empty glass on the coffee table. The commercial finally ended and Jasper forced his guts to relax.
“Sorry,” Jasper said.
“Don’t worry, man. It was a long week.”
After work the next Saturday morning, Jasper went out onto his front step and sat in the sunlight, letting it blind him momentarily.
“Tilson, buddy!” Wes said. He appeared out of nowhere, walking up the driveway. “How you doin’?”
“Fine.” Jasper said.
“Nice shrubs.” Wes said, pointing at the rose bushes in front of the house. He lifted a bottle of gin out of his massive cargo shorts. “You still got some tonic?” he said as he pulled a bag of limes out of the other pocket.
“Great, man,” Wes said. They went inside, Wes heading into the kitchen. “Hey, how’s that job you got going?”
Jasper sat on the couch. “It’s going,” he said.
“Is it really that bad being here at night?”
Jasper nodded, knowing Wes couldn’t see him from the kitchen.
“I mean, really, if it’s that bad, why don’t you just sell the house? You don’t need all this space and—”
“I’m not selling the house,” Jasper said.
Wes poked his head out from the kitchen. “Ever?”
Jasper stared at the TV, unable to pay attention to the morning news.
A few moments later Wes came out with two drinks in his hands. “I threw a pizza in.”
Jasper nodded and sipped the drink. He hadn’t had a gin and tonic in a while. Wes was watching him. “What?”
“You look like you’re in a pretty good mood,” said Wes.
Jasper sipped his drink. “I’m a little tired.”
“Still, you look pretty happy.”
Jasper’s brow creased. “Okay.”
“I hope you don’t mind,” Wes’s smile grew, “but I invited some friends over. They should be here any minute.”
Jasper set the drink on the coffee table and stood up. “You what?”
Wes held up his hands. “Jasper, man, just chill it out for a sec. You’ll really like ‘em. They’re nice as nieces and not nearly related.”
Jasper glared at him. “You invited women over? To my house?”
“What? We’ll have a little fun. They’ve been up all night anyway, and I thought it’d be a good time to throw a little spark back into this place.”
“You should have asked me if—”
The doorbell rang. “They’re here,” Wes whispered. “You’ll love ‘em. Just try.” He leapt over and opened the door. “Ladies!” he said, spreading his arms wide. “Come on in!”
Three women in short fluttering skirts stepped through the door, materializing out of the glaring morning sunlight. One had shiny blonde hair, one had shiny brown hair, and one worn a shiny yellow bandana that sparkled in the sunlight.
“That’s Jasper over there,” Wes said. “The guy I told you about.”
“Hey, Jasper,” they each said in turn.
Wes closed the door. “Have a seat. Pizza’s in the oven.”
“Great,” the blonde said. “I’m starved.”
“You ladies have a good night so far?” Wes said.
“A good morning, too,” the brunette said as she sat on the couch and crossed her legs. Jasper got a full view right up her skirt and turned away.
“Jasper, I threw two pizzas in,” Wes said. “I’ll pay you back for the second one.”
“So what’s going on?” bandana girl said.
“We’re just watching some Saturday morning news,” Wes said. “You all want a drink?”
The girls nodded.
Wes went to the kitchen to make the drinks, leaving Jasper alone with the women.
“We like your place,” the blonde said.
The brunette nodded. “It’s great.”
“Thanks,” said Jasper.
“You do all the decorating?” the blonde said.
Jasper shook his head, and the bandana girl sitting next to the blonde elbowed her hard in the breast.
“Ow! Oh, sorry.”
Silence settled in like a falling guillotine until Wes came back, three drinks balanced in his hands. “There you all go,” he said.
“So what’ll we do?” the brunette said.
Wes glanced around. “Hey, we could play a game.”
Before Jasper could do anything, Wes curled his way around to the Chinese checker board. He started snatching up the marbles and setting them in their starting positions on the ends of the board.
“No!” Jasper shouted and dashed over to him. He ripped Wes back by the neck of his green t-shirt. The marbles in Wes’s fingers tumbled to the carpet and ricocheted away in all directions.
“Whoa, bud, what’s up?”
Jasper’s face shook red. “I told you about these,” he growled.
Wes reached for the marbles again. “Oh, come on, just chill, will ya? It’s just a game and—”
Jasper clutched Wes around the neck and threw him to the floor. The girls behind him screamed as Jasper pinned Wes to the floor and began punching him in the head as hard as he could.
“Jasper, Jasper,” Wes said between blows, covering his face with his arms.
Wet globs of tears dribbled from Jaspers burning eyes onto Wes’s forearms. Jasper punched relentlessly, wailing out loud, his lips curled back.
Wes didn’t try to stop Jasper from beating him. He spoke as if he were calming a baby who’d been suddenly startled out of a deep sleep.
“Okay Jasper, okay, all right.”
Jasper continued to beat him, sobbing.
“All right Jasper, okay, it’s all right, okay, that’s okay Jasper, that’s all right.”
Jasper spent all Saturday night and Sunday night trying to recreate the exact marble pattern of the Chinese checkers game, but he could never get it right.
On Monday morning, Jasper sat in front of his television, sipping a vodka tonic, watching Regis and Kelly. He got up when someone knocked on his door, and when he opened it, Wes was standing there. His face was blue and red and encrusted with scabs like a mosaic beneath his beard, but he smiled his gray-toothed smile just the same, and Jasper let him in.
“Tilson!” Wes said. “How was the weekend?”
Jasper just stared at him.
“Mind if I come in?”
Jasper shook his head.
“Well good,” Wes said. “Hey, your shrubs are looking good, man.”
Wes went into the kitchen and made himself a drink, then came back out and sat down on the couch. “What’s this?”
“Regis and Kelly,” said Jasper, sitting next to him.
Wes whistled. “She’s some looker. Her name’s Kelly?”
“Damn, man, what a body.”
“You want a pizza?”
Wes shook his head. “I’m not up for chewing just yet, but maybe later.”
Jasper cradled his drink in his hands. “I’m sorry about—”
“Hey, do you think that Kelly would go out with me if we met?”
Jasper glanced over at Wes. “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe.”
Wes smiled and nodded, his tongue sticking out. “That’s what I like to hear,” he said. “A little bit of hope.”
They sat and watched for a moment.
“She’s not married to that Regis guy there, is she?”
Wes sighed. “That’s good. I hate it when those young chicks marry those old guys. It’s just weird, ya know?”
Jasper nodded. “It is weird, I guess.”
Wes nodded. “They all love those TV personalities. I’d hate being on TV. You know why? What if something went wrong? What if this Regis guy here just starts choking on his coffee or something like that? What’s he gonna do? He’s on TV. Everyone’s watching.”
Just then Regis coughed, coffee dribbling down his chin. Jasper and Wes sat like statues, gaping as Regis wiped his mouth with his sleeve, coughed some more, then walked off the stage. Kelly leaned back on her stool and laughed.
Jasper couldn’t believe it, and apparently neither could Wes, who scooted to the edge of the couch, set his drink down on the coffee table, and folded his hands.
“Don’t say anything, Jasper,” he said. “I don’t want to lose this power.”
“Shh!” He said, his eyes fixed on Kelly Ripa. “What if something went wrong?” he said. “What if Kelly here leans forward and her shirt gets caught on the stool and rips off? What’s she gonna do? She’s on TV. Everyone’s watching.”
Jasper laughed so hard that he knocked his drink over, spilling it onto the remote control. The channels started changing at random, and Wes lost it.
“No, man!” He dove for the remote, trying to get Kelly back on the screen. Jasper couldn’t stop laughing. The channels continued to change, and Wes threw the remote on the ground and dashed around the coffee table to the TV, pressing the buttons on the front panel. He finally got control of the TV and quickly surfed back to channel four.
Jasper tried to control his laughing but couldn’t, and for the first time in a long time, it didn’t feel like a betrayal. It felt like a tribute.
When his teary eyes cleared he saw Wes leaning back on the couch, shaking his head.
“It happened, man,” Wes said. “I know it did. We missed it.”
Jasper nodded. “I bet we did,” he said.
Wes left once Regis and Kelly ended, and Jasper went to sleep. He woke to the sun dropping in the sky, shooting rays through the western windows into the living room. Jasper walked into the kitchen and poured a bowl of cornflakes, amazed at how refreshed he felt, as if his body had come out of a coma.
As he poured the milk, he realized he felt good enough to call in sick for work, and he left the kitchen table and wound into the living room. He picked up the phone and called his boss at FasTech.
“Yep,” he said, talking in the lowest voice he could manage. “I feel terrible.”
Jasper smiled as he hung up the phone. Hana would’ve loved him for stealing a sick day from work, and she would’ve done the same, pinching her nose shut with one hand, holding the receiver in the other.
When Jasper finished eating, he came out of the kitchen he saw the marbles on
the metal Chinese checkers board. The sunset light glinted off the marbles like diamonds.
Before he could think about it, he gathered up all the marbles and dropped them and the metal checkerboard into the cardboard box beneath the table. Then pulled the other boxes out from under the table and carried them to the hall closet. He opened the closet door and began putting the games away. They felt heavy in his hands. He pushed them into place and let his hands rest against the boxes, breathing in and out. This is good, he thought, and he closed the closet door with the boxes inside, knowing that when the time was right, he would pull them out again and play a game or two with whoever happened to stop by.
©2010 by John Woodington