When I wrote the first Jack Miller book, Bicycling Through Space and Time, in the ’90s, it didn’t take me long to learn that his many crazy comedy/satire adventures needed to be tempered with some scenes of a more serious nature. The chapter where he meets an eight-year-old Adolf Hitler literally helped sell the novel to Ace/Berkley. Later on, Jack meets one of his idols, the late Harry Chapin, in what I called the Rock-and-Roll Afterward. (He also meets his deceased German shepherd, Barney, in Doggie Afterward, a chapter in the second book, The Ultimate Bike Path. Tough chapters to write, let me assure you.)
Now that Jack is a senior in the fourth book, Back on the Bike Path, it seems that he is having more serious moments than previously. Maybe that’s maturity; maybe not. In any case, about midway through the book he has an unexpected visit to the Mom and Dad Afterward. His mother, Rose Miller Leventhal of Pompano Beach. Florida had passed away two years earlier, and Jack had lost his dad, Henry Miller, when he was young. At some point, while riding along the Ultimate Bike Path, he thinks about his father, and how the quiet, introverted man never told Jack that he loved him, even though Jack knew that he did. Here is part of the chapter, which was gut-wrenching for me to write. The Doorkeeper had just led him into the Afterward.
[The Doorkeeper] disappeared—literally—while I took a few shaky steps into the blackness. The muffled voices grew louder as smiling couples both arm-in-arm and hand-in-hand passed by me, all mouthing words of greeting. Most were young, but I did notice some middle-aged and elderly pairs, their smiles equally as wide. Just about every race, creed, and culture was in this Afterward.
Only one person in the world ever called me Jackie. My heart racing like a Breeder’s Cup favorite, I spun around and stared at the couple that stood there. I noticed that all of the other pairs had faded into the darkness.
When our daughter, Jacqueline, was little she used to love sitting with Holly and me and thumbing through our old family albums. (Holly’s Iowa relatives looked like they’d stepped out of a Grant Wood painting, barn, pitchfork, and all.) Knowing her Gamma Rose only as a little old chubby lady, she could hardly believe one of the first photos in my album. An old sepia print, it showed my mom and dad in their early twenties, soon after they were married. Mom, so slim and pretty back then, wore a mischievous smile. My dad, though not exactly grinning ear to ear (he seldom smiled much), had a contented look as he stood, tall and handsome. (I only remember him bent over from the challenges of life, right up until he died.)
The couple in that photo, Henry Miller and Rose Miller Leventhal—no, Henry and Rose Miller—now stood before me. I’ll say it again: Oh my!
“Hi Ma, hi Dad,” I managed to croak, and for a moment I thought that I might flip upside down again.
“It’s good to see you, son,” my dad said.
“We’ve looked in on you once in a while ever since I joined your father, Jackie,” my mother added. “Such a wonderful family you have.”
I wagged a finger between the two of them. “Uh, how…I mean—”
“You’re wondering about Tobias Leventhal,” my mom stated. “Yes, I know you called him ‘Chainsaw.’ Pretty funny, actually. He is with his first wife. We see them once in a while.”
“Nice people,” my father added.
“Jackie, your dad was the only man that I ever loved. We are destined to be together forever, as it should be…”
“Son, are you all right?” My dad noticed that I verged on hyperventilating and rocked slightly from side to side, like the second hand of a clock.
I straightened myself out. “Uh, yeah, but I’m thinking that I might have to go.”
Dad shook his head. “You can’t leave yet.”
He reached behind and produced two baseball gloves. Tossing one to me, he backed up a few yards. Oh my! Seemingly from thin air he plucked a ball and held it up for me to see. Oh my!
He threw it. Oh my! I caught it. Oh my!
We played catch for a minute…or perhaps it was a thousand years. My mother watched, hands clasped under her chin, a smile stretching from the proverbial ear to ear.
Hands on knees, I gasped for air. My mother took the mitt, tossed it aside, hugged me, said, “I love you, Jackie. Best that you go now.”
I looked at my dad. He raised an arm, waved. I waved back then started to turn.
“Jack?” my dad called.
“I love you, son.”
I ran into his arms. “Love you too, Dad,” I sobbed.
I backed away but kept my eyes focused as best I could on Rose and Henry Miller. They had come together again and now smiled as they watched my awkward exit. I turned, nearly falling over, and the Doorkeeper stood there, one arm outstretched. I grabbed hold of his sleeve…