Genny = me.
Max = my dad.
“I thought after lunch I’d go visit Johnnie Ketchum on the third floor,” Max said through a mouthful of food.
“I’m sure he would appreciate that,” Genny said. She picked up one of the limp greasy fries and examined it.
“You know, he has emphysema because he didn’t get to finish college,” Max said with a sideways glance at Genny.
“What in the world are you talking about?”
“Didn’t I ever tell you about Johnnie’s parents?” Max asked.
“His parents? I thought we were talking about his emphysema.”
Max wiped his mouth and moved his glass closer. He emptied four packets of sugar into his tea and took a long drink. He leaned back in his chair, inhaled deeply, then clasped his hands together and rested them on his large belly.
“Johnnie Ketchum’s dad was called Earl Jay. He was a handsome, charming man. Everyone said so. We never knew where he was from though. He just sort of appeared. One day when he was in the Five and Dime, he met the two Ingle sisters, Bessie and Irene. Now, Bessie, the older of the two, was plain and frail. Irene, on the other hand was beautiful and vivacious. They had the best farmland in the county and had money to burn – but Mr. Ingle hardly ever spent one penny if he didn’t have to.”
Genny worked at removing the skin from her fried chicken.
Max continued. “Earl Jay started courting Irene, ‘Tootsie’ as he called her, and after a few months went to her father to ask to marry her. Tootsie’s father said that Irene couldn’t marry anyone until her older sister, Bessie, had married. That very night Earl Jay broke up with Irene. But after two weeks, he came back and asked Bessie out. Within a few months, Bessie and Earl Jay were married. Nine months later, she died giving birth to Johnnie. A few months after that Earl Jay married Tootsie, but she’d been around the block. Do you know what I mean when I say that?” Max asked.
“Yes, Dad. I know what it means,” Genny said. She used her napkin to wipe the grease from her piece of chicken. “But you still haven’t told me what college has to do with Johnnie’s emphysema.”
“Jeez-O-Pete. You’d think by now you would’ve learned to stay in the boat to get where we’re going.” Max added another packet of sugar to his tea. “So Earl Jay, he marries Tootsie and she starts spending money like crazy. Earl Jay doesn’t really care because he sure is having fun. By this time, Johnnie is ready to go to college. He was smart as a whip, that Johnnie, and had been accepted by Notre Dame. He wanted to be an architect. Only after his first year his dad didn’t have any money left. Tootsie had spent it all. Of course, even Earl Jay wasn’t stupid enough to sell all that great farmland. The next year Tootsie died so Johnnie stayed home to take care of his dad. After Earl Jay passed away, Johnnie sat in his rocking chair and smoked cigarettes all day long.” Max leaned forward and bit into his fried chicken.
“And?” Genny asked.
“And now, my dear girl,” Max said dribbling grease on his shirt. “He has emphysema because he didn’t get to go to college.”
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