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MY SHATTERED CATERPILLAR JAR by Cameron Roeback

I watched Gina pace outside the glass wall of our conference room, her lips moving, practicing what she would say. The right hand she normally reserved for my morning coffee held a box of tissues.

Gary from accounting had been ranting for some time, and I only just realized I wasn’t paying attention. Instead, my eyes fixated on Gina’s pacing. “Stop talking,” I interrupted Gary. My hand looked flimsy raised over his mouth. He was 81% insulted and 19% disheartened, but I didn’t care.

“Gina, get in here,” I called to my secretary.

Her pale skin turned a beet red when she realized we could see her from the meeting room. Cracking the door open, she poked her head inside. She was 45% distraught and 55% nervous. “Mr. Bradford, can I speak to you privately for a moment?”

“Why?”

“I received news this morning that you might want to hear,” Gina said without taking a breath. “Privately,” she added.

“Excuse me, Gentlemen,” I rose, flattening my suit against my thin frame.

Gina led me out the door and down the hallway just out of sight of the glass meeting room. “Sir, your father passed away this morning. I’m so sorry.” The girl was 24% empathetic and 76% terrified of me.

I stood motionless, my eyes fixated on Gina’s cropped blonde hair cut. After I let my brother Rodney die, my father was the last remaining member of my family. The slightest smirk spread across the corner of my mouth. I shook my head until I heard a muffled laughter erupting from the back of my throat. “My father isn’t dead.”

Realizing I wouldn’t need the box of tissues, Gina placed them on a desk beside her. It must have come as some small relief to the girl. Now she was 82% confused, and a mere 18% terrified of me. “Sir, I received a call this morning from the—”

“Don’t worry,” I covered her mouth, “I’ll find him.” I walked back into the meeting room to collect my briefcase. “Something urgent,” I told my colleagues. No one said a word. On the way out the door I called to Gina, “I’m taking a half day today, probably off tomorrow.”

“Sir—” she started, but didn’t know what to say. She thinks I’m crazy, I realized.

I kept walking anyway. I didn’t have time to explain. “I’ll find him,” I said again, closing the office door behind me.

Gina didn’t know, but my father had called six months earlier to tell me he was dying. It had been the first time I had heard from him in nine years. I figured the only reason he had to call me would be to ask for money to pay for his treatments, so I didn’t call back. Then he called me every week for the next few months to tell me he found something he wanted to show me, but I never answered the phone. I never did see what he meant to show me.

When Gina told me he had died, I could see the situation for what it was—a ploy for my attention.

* * *

It didn’t take much longer than an hour to drive from downtown Dallas to my hometown of Blue Ridge. My father wouldn’t be at his house, I realized. Too many people think he’s dead. But where he hid was a riddle he meant for me to solve—an elaborate game of hide-and-go-seek. Sadly, it ended before it began. I knew my father better than he gave me credit for. I knew exactly where he would be waiting for me.

By quarter to three, I pulled into the driveway of my childhood home. In the center of the front lawn, my father slept in his blue Dallas Cowboys lawn chair. His head lay listlessly against the chair, his eyes hidden behind black sunglasses. Sweat glistened from his tan, wrinkled skin as the sun beat down over him. Next to him sat an empty University of Texas lawn chair intended for me.

Stepping out of the car, I felt the smoldering heat of a summer afternoon. I considered taking my blazer off, but thought better of it. Instead, I sat in the lawn chair next to my father without saying a word. I noticed he was wearing his old red bathing suit, the same one he wore the day of the accident twenty-five years ago. Was this what he found? Was this what he wanted to show me?

Minutes passed while my dad slept beside me. Finally, I decided speak first. “Grass here sure is dead, huh?”

“KJ,” my father’s lips were the only part of his body to move.

“I go by Kent, Dad. You know that.”

He pulled himself upright in his chair and held his sunglasses up to look at me. “No, I’m Kent. You’re Kent Junior,” he chuckled to himself. That’s what he had been telling me since I was old enough to understand what a name was.

“All right,” I said, unbuttoning my blazer. “How is it being dead?”

He dropped his sunglasses back over his eyes and ignored my question. “Why is it so damn hard to get you to do anything?” The words lingered in the air for a moment. I couldn’t help but feel I had heard him say that to me about going outside to play when I was a kid.

“I guess we have one thing in common,” I said at last. My father was a stubborn man, and he had hardly looked at me in the twenty-odd years since my little brother Rodney died. “I’m sorry you’re sick, but it’s not my responsibility to take care of you.” The words felt satisfying, but they evoked no response from him. He simply laid his head back down on his lawn chair. “You called about something, something you wanted to show me?” I asked.

“Something I forgot about when you were young,” he said, but that didn’t help. He had already said as much in the messages he left on my phone.

I let out a deep sigh, “Where is it?” I knew it was hopeless, though. My father would continue to speak in phrases I remembered from my past without telling me anything new. It was all a part of the great riddle.

I decided to take my dad’s old red bathing suit as a clue. Draping my black blazer over the lawn chair, I started for the backyard. I figured whatever he meant to show me must relate to Rodney’s accident years ago. That’s why I had to meet him here over any other place. Whoever lives in this house nowadays wouldn’t be home for a few hours, I hoped.

Much had changed in the years since I lived here. The trees and shrubs had grown taller and more unruly; the above-ground pool must have been torn down years earlier. I walked to the edge of the yard, where Rodney died twenty-five years ago. A segment of fresh iron links wove together amid the hopelessly rusted fence. Doubtless, whoever lived in the neighbor’s house now had no idea why they had mismatched chain links.

At six years old, Rodney loved to sit on the fence and throw small rocks at the neighbor’s sleeping Rottweiler, Max. The dog would bark and leap against the fence, while Rodney hopped safely back into our yard laughing. But on that day, the severely rusted fence cracked behind the weight of Max’s charge. I found it 8% amusing and 92% infuriating that the neighbors felt it necessary to fix only this segment of the fence. I determined this was not the answer to my father’s riddle.

Next, I crouched beneath our old oak tree. A faint smile passed my lips as I found caterpillar cocoons along it, but I knew this wasn’t what my father wanted me to find either.

When I was eleven years old, I watched Rod die from this exact spot. I remember turning rocks over, trying to find caterpillars to put in my mason jar. I ignored the dog’s barking, but dropped and shattered my bug jar after I heard the screech of tearing metal. My head whipped around in time to see Max tackle Rodney. I was right there, so close. I could have saved him, but I froze. I was too afraid to help.

My father ran into action, his massive arms ripped Max off my brother. He didn’t call the ambulance for twenty minutes; we both knew it was too late. Instead, he held Rodney’s lifeless body, blood soaking his red bathing suit. His eyes peered up at me with cold disbelief, as if to ask, “Why couldn’t you do something?”

My eyes traced the backyard, trying to remember where my dad had run to my brother’s rescue from. He was swimming with his girlfriend, Vicky, in our above-ground pool, I remembered all at once. The dry grass, where once our pool stood, left me no clue as to what my Dad wanted me to find. Whatever the answer, it clearly couldn’t be found in my old backyard, but coming back here gave me a lead—my dad’s girlfriend Vicky.

I called Gina and told her to drop what she was doing, “Victoria Greenwald of Blue Ridge Texas. Don’t call back until you have a number for me. I expect a callback in five.”

In the front yard, I rejoined my dad in his lawn chair. “I’m getting closer to finding what you wanted to show me.” I loosened the tie from around my neck. Wincing up at the sun, I judged it must have been about three-thirty in the afternoon. “Let’s leave. Whoever lives here now will be back soon.”

Laughter rolled from the back of his throat. “You expect me to believe you’re going to get up and leave? All you do is sit on your ass all day. Go ahead and leave. I welcome the opportunity to see you walk outside.” I remember him saying those exact words after I threatened to run away from home.

“All right,” I threw my hands up defensively. “We’ll get kicked off, but fine.” My dad always wanted me to get in trouble as a kid. I disappointed him.

Seven minutes and roughly twenty seconds of silence passed before Gina called me back with Vicky’s phone number. I called it immediately.

“Hello?” came a familiar raspy voice.

“Hello, Vicky? This is Kent Bradford,” I said, and waited for a reply. The other line stayed silent before I realized my mistake. “Junior,” I added.

“KJ, ya’ scared the living daylights out of me, boy.” I could tell from her nasally tone she had been crying all day. “I’m so sorry to hear about your daddy,” she said. I fought the urge to laugh as I looked across to my dad lounging in his Cowboys lawn chair.

“No, I’m sorry. You knew him better than I did.” I held my hand above my eyes to block the glaring sunlight beating down on me.

“Don’t start, KJ, your daddy loved you. You’re too hard on him. You never listened to him.”

“We didn’t talk much.”

“I said don’t start with a grieving woman.” Vicky had been with my dad for almost as long as I could remember. They acted as married as any married couple, but lacked the title. For whatever reason, my father would never remarry.

“I apologize.” I was only 20% sincere, but I could hear Vicky on the verge of tears again. “There was something I wanted to ask you.”

“Yeah?”

“My father, did he—” I wanted to ask her about the something he found for me, but I heard myself ask a different question. “He never pushed me to play sports in high school, why not?”

“What are you… You always hated that stuff.” She sounded 93% confused.

My father turned to me, but I averted his gaze. “I did. I do. But before Rodney died Dad tried everything to get me outside. After it, he gave up on it. He didn’t care.”

Vicky drew a long sigh. “He always said he wasn’t meant to be a father. Your mother died, and he was left alone to raise two little boys. After Rod, he gave up on himself, not you. Kent regretted a lot of things, especially by the end.”

“Because I wouldn’t pay his hospital bills?” I had to ask. I knew she didn’t want to deal with me right now, but my father wouldn’t tell me anything new. I had to solve my dad’s riddle. She was the only hope I had to find answers.

“Yes, as a matter of fact. Your father was such a stubborn man. You had to ignore him on his death bed before he realized how badly you hated him.”

“I didn’t hate him. We were different people.” I studied my dad’s wrinkled, calloused hands beside my own, soft and pale. “Rodney would have grown up to be just like him. He could have been a better son.”

A dim hum filled the receiver. She hung up on me.

My dad turned to me, pulling the sunglasses from his tan, wrinkled face. “Your brother wouldn’t have been such a bitch.”

Shooting up from my seat, I kicked my lawn chair back behind me and started for the car. I remembered my dad saying those words to me in high school. I couldn’t remember what the fight had been about, but it was one of the worst we’d ever had. “Good thing you’re with Rodney now then,” I told him as he ceased to exist behind me.

Clenching my steering wheel tight and pushing fifteen miles per hour over the speed limit, I tore off down the highway heading back home. I pulled my cellphone out to tell Gina I would be at work tomorrow when I saw a text message from Vicky’s number, which read “Kent had something for you, Blue Ridge High School.” I threw the phone into the passenger seat, trying to forget my dad and his stupid riddle.

My eyes glanced over at the phone periodically as I tried to remember anything he did while I went to school. Neither my father nor I cared much about my high school life. I didn’t participate in many things or make a name for myself there. What could he have found there to call me week after week about? My foot eased up on the gas pedal, bringing me back to the speed limit. I had to know. I made a U-turn, heading back to my hometown, 66.6% curious and 33.3% hopeful.

* * *

The brown stone walls of Blue Ridge High School stood amid a barren field of dead grass between a trailer park and a storage facility. I studied the entire building from my car. It looked almost unfamiliar. I didn’t think about this place often after the four years I spent dreading it. I left my blazer in the car and rolled up my sleeves before walking in. Class had ended an hour or two earlier. The narrow halls showed no signs of life apart from the colored flyers littering them.

A single secretary occupied the large, open office space. She pulled her glasses in front of her eyes to study me. The years had not been kind. Her hair had grayed since last I saw her. I could remember her from my days in school here, but by the glazed look in her eyes, she didn’t recognize me.

“Can I help you, sir?” she asked.

“I’m looking for the principal here.”

“He’s getting out of a meeting. He’ll be a moment,” the secretary’s voice rolled slowly and monotonously. She was 40% apathetic and 60% depressed. Any enthusiasm or tone her voice once carried must have been beaten down by years of inconsiderate kids.

“I’ll wait.” I found a seat against the wall. A smile crept to my lips when I realized this seat must be frequented by troubled students awaiting punishment from the principal. My dad would love to see me sitting here.

Minutes passed while the secretary typed away on her keyboard, ignoring me. As far as I knew, the principal would leave the building before she would tell him I was here. I gave her another minute before taking matters into my own hands. I walked around her desk toward the principal’s office.

“Sir, the principal will be with you in a moment.” She shuffled her heavy legs after me but dragged her speech in the same dull tone.

I sped up. Unfortunately, I knew she could likely overpower me if need be. I swung open the principal’s door to find his office empty. I continued on my search. “Sir, Sir,” the secretary waddled hot on my trail. I poked my head in the nurse’s office—empty.

Two confused faces stared back at me in the break room. “Are either of you the principal?” I asked, already out of breath. The two shook their heads silently. Suddenly, I remembered the secretary telling me the principal was getting out of a meeting. Slowing down for a moment, I searched for a meeting room—there to my right. The secretary’s hand grazed my arm, but I slipped out and sprinted down the short hallway to the meeting room.

A short, thin, bald man looked up at me as he shut his brief case, “Hello,” he said with a smile.

“Hello, are you the principal?”

The secretary gasped for breath behind my back, “Principal Thompson, I tried to tell him—”

“My name is Kent Bradford Jr., KJ. I used to go to school here.”

The principal nodded for me to continue. A forced smile seemed tethered to his round head.

“My dad died. I have reason to believe he left something here for me.”

“Please, call me Dave,” the Principal said, as if I had called him anything different, “and I think I might just know what you’re looking for. Follow me.”

The secretary left for her desk, no fight left in her to complain. I followed Dave out of the office toward the front of the building. We were both thin men, but I felt especially lanky towering above him. He led me to a trophy display case. His cheesy grin seemed more sincere than ever.

“I don’t know what—” I said, glancing at the wall of school trophies: basketball trophies from ’79, ’80, ’93, and ’05; a good number of band trophies; a football district championship; volleyball; swimming. “I didn’t do any of this,” I said at last.

The principal giggled. “Our newest edition,” he pointed to a hand-sized silver chess trophy engraved:

2nd Place
Kent Bradford Jr.
1996

I squinted to study the thing. I could remember winning it my senior year of high school in a district chess tournament. There were only four of us competing.

“Your father found it a few months ago. He was quite insistent we put it up,” the principal said.

What does this have to do with the accident? I wondered. “Did he say anything about my little brother when you saw him?”

Principal Dave shook his head, tucking his shirt back underneath his sweater vest, “He came here asking if we had any record of you. Eventually we let him dig around in our basement boxes. He looked for three days to find that little guy.”

“Why does it matter that my name is on a second place trophy in a school I didn’t like?” I asked. “No offense,” I added after seeing the smile wash from Principal Dave’s face, “I’m sure I would love it now.”

He shrugged and gave a polite chuckle. “Ask your dad. He wasn’t interested in saying much beyond ordering me to put it up.”

“My dad died.”

“I’m so sorry.” Principal Dave put his hand on my shoulder.

“It’s okay,” I said, “I know where to find him.”

* * *

I relied on my GPS to take me from the high school’s parking lot to my dad’s current house. I had never seen this place before, but I remembered the address from several ignored Thanksgiving and Christmas invitations. The cloudless sky gleamed pink from the glare of the setting sun. Tall, gray oak trees formed a shaded canopy over the front lawn.

My dad had set the lawn chairs up here now. After seeing my car pulling in the driveway, he propped his sunglasses over his eyebrows. “Glad you finally made it. Sit down. Mi casa es su casa.” He spread out my University of Texas lawn chair beside him.

I was excited to hear him say something new—something beyond the phrases I remembered from earlier in my life.

“I solved your riddle—found your little surprise.” I took my dress shoes off, and left them in the car.

“Congratulations, Chess Champion.” He raised his beer up in salute.

“Second place,” I corrected, taking my seat at his right side.

“I’ll drink to that.” And he did.

I couldn’t help but laugh to myself, “Why does it matter now?”

“You hated me, KJ. I didn’t realize it till the end.” He shrugged, “But you hated me.”

“I never hated you. It seemed obvious to both of us you would have been happier if Rodney had lived instead of me.” My words came slower as I realized their weight. I stared away into the pink sky above our heads.

“He would have been easier. Rod was just like me. You were a smart, sensitive kid. I was a construction worker. But, no, I never thought I’d be ‘happier’ one way or another.” Dad shook his head. He grabbed me by the shoulder to look me in the eyes, “I would never choose between my boys.”

I managed eye contact only in passing glances, finding it increasingly hard to hold in the seriousness of the conversation. “You could have had both, if I was brave enough to save him.”

“KJ,” He buried his face into his calloused hand. “you know who I blame for Rod’s accident? I blame the damned dog that bit into his face. I blame the neighbors who let their fence rust to hell. I blame myself for not watching what he was doing.” Realizing his voice was growing louder with each sentence, he brought the volume back to a conversational whisper. “I never blamed an eleven-year-old boy for not jumping in front of a hundred-and-twenty-pound Rottweiler.”

I clenched my teeth, swallowing back tears. “I’m sorry, Dad. I should have picked up the phone. I should have answered your calls.”

A smirk crossed the corner of his thin lips, “Don’t sweat it. I know you’re off with your busy corporate job.”

I cracked open my can of beer. It foamed rapidly, and spilt down the sides, drenching my hands. “I took tomorrow off.”

“Why is that?”

“Your funeral,” I said, wiping sticky hands across my dress pants.

Dad threw his head back, laughing. I smiled back, too overwhelmed to laugh with him. He tapped his empty beer against my full can in a toast. “That’s my boy.”

I sat alone on the front lawn of my dad’s house, watching the sun shrink over the horizon, the pink sky fading to a dark blue. Tears welled in my eyes. Whether they came from grief or joy, I couldn’t say.

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AUTHOR BIO:

Cameron Roeback is a writer, filmmaker, and student currently living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His script “The Greater Image” was a finalist in the Steeltown Film Factory competition, and the subsequent film premiered at the Lancaster International Film Festival. He is an actor and script writer for the JP award-winning web series “Real Sorority Girls.” He attends the University of Pittsburgh where he is completing his degree in Finance.

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WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “My Shattered Caterpillar Jar”

Author Cameron Roeback brought us a story that combines well-drawn characters, an interesting technique of using percentages to show character responses, bits of humor, and good emotional resonance. He does these while maintaining a sense of mystery both for the reader and the main character, Kent Bradford. The result is a satisfying story of father and son reconnecting before it was too late to do so.