Jacob Morgendorffer, Esq.
Veterans Administration Hospital, Philadelphia Pennsylvania
Late summer, 1979
Ruth Morgendorffer did not realize that she was listening to the softly echoing footfalls until they stopped just outside of the room. She quickly glanced at her sleeping husband before turning her stare to the door. For the longest moment, nothing, but with an almost palatable reluctance, it swung slowly open and Jake stepped through.
With a small gasp, Ruth darted across the room seizing her son in a fierce, rib-creaking hug burying her face in his chest. "Jakey," she whimpered repeatedly as her tears soaked his shirt.
Jake briefly noted the many gray hairs that were not there when he last saw his mother before lowered his face to the top of her head as he wrapped his arms around her. A whispered "I'm so sorry" came on the heels of an "I love you" before Jake surrendered to his emotions. Love and guilt at the eleven-year separation smashed through the dam of his reserve freeing a torrent of tears.
For several minutes, they clung to each other unmindful of the world around them. Only their long-delayed reunion mattered as each tried to pour a decade into their embrace, each endeavoring to shed a mountain of remorse.
Helen quietly slipped past them. She thought to make herself known to Ruth whom she had never met but could not intrude on mother and son. Introductions could wait. After eleven years what was a few more minutes. Instead, she turned her attention to the sleeping man on the bed. A look of sympathy came across her face when she spied her father-in-law. With a sad shake of her head, she sat down in the room's only other chair just inside the doorway.
It was a soft moan from Mad Dog that finally separated the clinging pair. Jake took an unbelieving step forward as his mother sat back by her husband's side. The man on the bed did not resemble the father he had turned his back on years earlier. In his absence, an emaciated, gray-hued carcass replaced the robust former soldier. Vigor and health were gone. Muscle seemly disappeared. The beer fed paunch had vanished. Only skin draped over bone remained, a network of veins protruding from the scant flesh on his bony hands giving any hint that a heart still beat somewhere within the wasted frame.
"Jesus," Jake muttered.
Mad Dog's eyes glacially opened. He almost smiled as he weakly patted Ruth's hand. It was not until turned his head that he saw Jake. Instantly what love for his wife that shone in his eyes vanished.
"Hi, Dad," Jake tentatively said stepping to his father's side.
"What are you doing here?" Mad Dog wheezed.
"Mom asked me to come," Jake replied. "She said that you were ...sick."
"Dying, you mean," Mad Dog weakly hissed. "And you came running all the way from California to watch the fun."
"No, Dad," Jake answered. "I was in Virginia and I was hoping to see you before you died."
Mad Dog snorted but the fit it triggered destroyed its derisive effect. Mad Dog rolled on his side as deep coughs racked his frail body. Jake and Helen looked on in alarm as light droplets of bloody spittle stained the white sheets and the handkerchief that Ruth brought to her husband's mouth. Jake was on the verge of calling for a nurse when a red-faced Mad Dog finally took a long raspy breath. After a deeper smoother breath, he eased over onto his back, his head sinking to the pillow.
Jake though that his father would fall back to sleep in the wake of his attack but after a few moments Mad Dog spoke back up.
"What's in Virginia?" he asked.
"My In-Laws," Jake patiently replied.
Mad Dog laughed. "I wouldn't have thought that there was any girl desperate enough to marry you."
Jake looked over at Helen. She smiled encouragingly back. "I'm sure Mom told you that I had gotten married," Jake answered patiently.
Mad Dog snorted again. "I wasn't sure a 'commitment ceremony' was a real marriage or not," he shot back. "How long did it last?"
"We still together," Helen snapped leaping to her feet.
"This is Helen, my wife," Jake said extending an arm toward her.
Mad Dog squinted but could not bring her into focus. "Where are my damn glasses?" he asked peevishly.
Ruth quickly retrieved his spectacles. Mad Dog impatiently snatched them from her. Ramming them on his face, he saw Helen for the first time. The nasty comment that he had begun died on his lips when he noticed that just how unexpectedly attractive Helen was. Mad Dog had a liking for the ladies.
"You could've done better," he said to her.
"I'm happy," Helen replied firmly.
Not finding a biting comment that would satisfy both his bile and his sense of chivalry, Mad Dog turned back to Jake. For several long moments, they simply stared at each other. Jake placed a hand on his father's forearm but Mad Dog shook it off.
"So what do you want?" He sharply asked. "Some touchy-feely reconciliation?"
Jake forced the hurt down. "No, Dad. I don't expect that to happen."
"So why are you here then?"
"Mom asked me to come," he repeated.
"Always were a momma's boy," his father grunted.
Jake narrowed his eyes but his voice remained calm. "All right, I did come for another reason," he said. "I'd like some answers."
Mad Dog hooted. "Why were you so mean to me, Daddy?" he said in a sarcastic falsetto. "Why didn't you get me a pony? Why did you send me to military school?"
"Yeah, why did you dump me in Buxton Ridge?" Jake asked undaunted by his father's jibes. "And why did you tell me that you would pay for my tuition at Middleton then refuse to do so?"
"America was at war, boy," his father replied. "You needed to be in uniform not hiding out at college with a bunch of hippie peaceniks."
"Must have pissed you off royally that I managed to work my way through," Jake retorted harshly, his control on his anger slipping.
"Didn't surprise me," Mad Dog shot back. "Like every other coward from your generation, you'd do anything to avoid serving you country."
Jake bit back his reply. Instead, he took a long breath then another, smaller one. He did not want to fight with his father. So many years had passed and there was so little time left. He searched his memory for some moment that they both could smile about, something to ease the tension. He could not find one.
"I don't want to argue with you, Dad," he said.
"You never did," Mad Dog replied triumphantly. "Always was a wimp. Jeez, you even got beat up by girls."
"Lucy Sands was bigger than I was," Jake said remembering the incident in the fifth grade. "And I couldn't hit a girl even if she was hitting me."
Mad Dog laughed without humor. "Should have packed you off to military school right then and there. Not that it did any good in the end. Look at you. Twenty-nine years old and just a long-haired bum."
"He's not a bum," Helen said forcefully. "He's a decent, hard-working, gentle, loving man."
"Yeah, and he still needs women to stand up for him," Mad Dog maliciously replied. "First it was Ruth and then some teachers and now you. He's got all the backbone of Jell-O."
"Forget this," Jake said sadly. "C'mon on Helen, let's go." He paused briefly. "Mom, there's a Holiday Inn a mile or so from here. We'll be there. Come by and we'll catch up over dinner or something."
"Jake, please stay," Ruth pleaded as Helen turned briskly to leave the room.
"Mom, I'm sorry," he replied. "There's just no point in trying."
"So you're slinking away again?" Mad Dog asked.
Jake stopped in the doorway allowing Helen to pass. "To tell the truth, Dad, you were right. I really wanted reconciliation. I wanted to somehow make things right between us before you die but you just won't let that happen."
"So what are you going to do?" Mad Dog shrilly demanded. "Write Daddy Dearest? Go on Phil Donahue and whine about what a rotten father I was?"
"No, Dad," he began but his father interrupted him.
"I spent fourteen months in a hellhole of a Red Chinese prison camp and what was my reward?" Mad Dog savagely asked. "I come home to a pansy of a kid who cried the first time he saw me! Mary couldn't hug me quick enough but not you! And the worst of it was I was stuck with you. Thanks to some commie shrapnel, I couldn't have any more kids! I couldn't make me a boy a man could be proud of!"
Jake, stunned by the revelation, involuntarily looked toward his father's groin. Mad Dog caught the glance.
"Yeah, that's right," Mad Dog barked. "I got my balls shot off! Go on, laugh about it. Damn Reds did when they found me!"
Jake frowned as he ruminated trying understand his father's treatment of him in light of his father's bombshell. Helen crystallized his half-formed thoughts.
"I always thought that Jake was exaggerated the abuse he suffered at your hands but I can see that I was wrong," she said stepping back into the room. "You do have severe if understandable psychological problems. Why didn't you seek any help? I'm sure the VA has programs to help Vets with mental problems stemming from war."
"I'm not crazy," Mad Dog roared as loudly as his weaken condition would allow.
"He's not," Ruth said rising to her husband's defense. "He's perfectly fine."
"No, hardly insane," Helen agreed. "But far from perfectly fine. He's obviously a textbook case of transference."
"Who the hell are you?" Mad Dog snapped. "Joyce Brothers?"
"I graduated summa cum laude with dual degrees in psychology and sociology," Helen replied. "But you hardly need to be Freud to analyze your case. The loss of your testicles left you feeling less manly. Clearly, in the light of your treatment of Jake, you projected those feelings on Jake seeing him as falling short of the masculine ideal. Further, you redirected your anger at the Chinese who maimed you on your son. Jake became your scapegoat, the vessel into which you poured every negative feeling you had."
"That a load of bull," Mad Dog retorted. "Get the hell out of here."
Without an another word, Helen spun on her heel and left the room again.
"I'm sorry," Jake said quietly.
"You should be sorry," his father said angrily. "Trust you to marry a mouthy bitch who thinks she knows everything 'cause she read a book or two."
"No, Dad, I meant that I was sorry for you," Jake clarified.
"I don't want your pity," Mad Dog snarled.
Jake nodded sorrow etching canyons in his face. "That's too bad because that's all I have for you," Jake evenly said before following his wife out of the room.