How I Wish You Were Here

By J. Speer

(I wrote another happy quarantine story.  This is a romantic comedy.  I kind of picture the Dad in the story like a Kevin James type and the Mom similar to Jennifer Aniston.) 

She was a nurse practioner at the busiest hospital in New York City during the COVID pandemic.  He was a marketer at a New York publishing firm.  He was on quarantine with their three teenage boys under stay-at-home orders.  They lived in the suburbs.  There was Nick, the eldest, who was in his senior year in high school and sadly missing out on all the fun of prom parties and graduation and such.  Patrick was the middle child.  He was a sophomore.  Then there was their youngest, Drew, who was a 7th grader in junior high. 

John was their father and he was pulling all the household duties while working from home on his laptop and helping the boys with their online schooling.  It proved to be quite a lot of juggling.  Carol, his wife, the nurse practioner, was working very long hours at the hospital helping the COVID patients.  She too was incredibly busy. 

They had not seen each other in over a month and a half.  Other than her previous medical trips to Africa, Carol had never been away from John that long.  They had been married for nearly 20 years. 

A month and a half ago, when things started heating up with the pandemic, she moved into a tiny apartment as close to the hospital as she could get.  She shared it with one other nurse.  She wanted to keep her family safe so she stayed away from them.  Carol pulled 14 hour shifts a day.  She had volunteered to put in extra hours here and there as needed.  She had seen a lot in the past few days.  Things that she couldn’t share with her husband.  It was getting stressful. 

They talked on the phone every night.  He was talking to her that night as he multi-tasked working on a marketing plan for a new account at the company, cooking Hamburger Helper at the stove, and making sure their youngest finished his math homework.  Although John excelled at school before, he couldn’t understand this new common core Math stuff.  When his father tried to sit down with him and work on the derivatives homework that night, Drew just kind of shook his head to himself.  Drew knew he wouldn’t get much help. 

John had thrown the pasta noodles into the cream sauce in the pan.  He was supposed to cover it and let the whole thing simmer but he forgot to turn down the heat as he was explaining to Carol his new business account.

“Ok, so he’s a real curmudgeon.  Rumor is, we are the third publishing company this old coot has worked with.  He gets dissatisfied and leaves and looks for another,” he explained to Carol over the phone as he checked over Drew’s shoulder at his homework.  He had no idea really what Drew was doing for this common core stuff but he figured if he checked him periodically, Drew would stay on task.  Drew looked up at his Dad sullenly and pushed his pencil and paper farther over to the left, further away from prying eyes. 

“His name is Max Hogard,” John stated.

“The Max Hogard?” asked Carol inquisitively as if she knew the man.

John said, “Yes, how…. how do you know about Max Hogard?”

Carol said, “He’s a popular author.  Writes detective stories.  Lots of people like Max Hogard’s books.  I guess I heard about him at work.”

“Well,” said John, “trust me, if you met this guy in person, you would think differently.  I can’t seem to pin him down.  We got the big Literary Fair coming up in Boston in 2 months and he won’t attend with the marketing plan offered.  Says it is too high.  Just refuses.  I can’t get him to budge for anything.”

“Well,” replied Carol over the phone.  “I have faith in you.  You’ll find a way.”

There was a pause in the conversation.  Normally she was pretty talkative but not tonight. 

“The boys doing okay?” she asked.  “I miss them.”

That was Carol.  No matter what was going on in her life, she always made the welfare of others her top priority.  That was what he loved about her most of all.  She had a big heart. 

“And you, John,” she asked.  “I hope you’re doing okay.  I worry about you taking care of everything at home.”    

He hadn’t really told her what a challenge it all was for him.  There was constant cleaning and laundry and more cleaning and more laundry with three teenage boys in the house full-time.  Plus, he had these online meetings with his department.  He would wear his pajama bottoms to the meetings with a nice work shirt and, during his work shift, he would move the mouse every couple of minutes to show he was actively online, even though sometimes he fudged and did other stuff around the house.  Still he was trying to nail down a commitment from this Hogard guy to attend the Boston Literary Fair and he was trying his hardest.  Apparently, his bosses thought it was very important. 

“I’m fine, Carol,” he said, “To be honest, I’m much more worried about you.  We all are.”  And with that, Drew looked up from his homework at his Dad for a moment.  Then Drew resumed working on his equations. 

There was another long pause on the line.  She didn’t say anything.  She didn’t say anything at all.  This wasn’t like her. 

John went to the stove to check on the Hamburger Helper.  The noodles were stuck to the pan.

“Ah man,” he said, “I think I burnt the Hamburger Helper.”  Drew looked up and did a slight eye roll movement.  Then he resumed his homework. 

Carol laughed into the phone.  It was a laugh but it didn’t quite sound right.  It sounded more like to John that she had been crying. 

“Carol?” he asked with sudden concern, forgetting the Hamburger Helper mess for the moment. 

“John….,” she started and then stopped. 

“John, it’s getting hard to do this.  The people……. I, um….,” and she stopped talking again on the line.  There was a silence. 

He moved into the dining room away from Drew and said, “Carol, you’re strong.  You always have been.” 

She didn’t say anything more. 

“John, I gotta go tonight.  I’m sorry, I just……. I need to rest,” she said.  “Give the kids my usual:  a hug and a kiss and an I love you.  Bye, John.  Have a good night.”  And with that, she hung up. 

She always said the same thing.  Give the kids a hug and a kiss and an I love you.  She said it every night.  But this time, she got off the phone earlier than usual.  It worried John. 

He went back to the mess of Hamburger Helper and tried to salvage what he could into a bowl.  He and the boys sat down to a meal in the kitchen that night as usual.  They did their usual quick prayer that included a brief request that their mom stay safe.  Then the boys devoured the Hamburger Helper with lots of ketchup.  They ate the green beans and mashed potatoes John had made too.  Afterwards, they scrapped off their plates in the trash, placed them in the kitchen sink, helped clear a couple of stuff off the table, and then the boys headed to their usual evening spots.  Nick went to his room upstairs where he promptly texted Abby, his girlfriend.  Patrick went back to playing Xbox in his room.  Drew went to his room and lay on the bed.  He began reading his Manga Promised Neverland book.  All three boys had shut the doors to their rooms.  Nick’s door had a sign on it that read, “Stay out.”  And he meant that. 

John cleared the kitchen table, put the dirty dishes in the dishwasher, and did the rest of the clean-up of the kitchen.  He tried to do his usual thing too which was working on marketing and figuring out a way to convince Max Hogard to play ball.  But, tonight, John just stared at the laptop unable to work.  He thought about Carol and his eyebrows furrowed in concern. 

He eventually wandered from the kitchen to the living room and plopped down on the big leather Lazy Boy recliner.  That was his chair and even Carol had insisted that everyone leave John’s chair alone.  It was his special spot and he had the remotes and coasters and such positioned just within reach.  He pushed the side button to bring his legs up.  Man, he loved this chair so much.  He got the remote and turned on the TV.  He found an old 80s movie.  It looked like something Carol would like.  It had that guy John Cusack and it was a love story.  Yep, Carol would like it he concluded.  So, he watched the movie almost to the very end.  It was a good one.  In the movie, John Cusack stood with a boombox over his head playing a love song for his girl.  John looked at the movie and suddenly grabbed the remote and froze the screen.  He watched the frozen Cusack image for a few moments. 

John pushed the down button on the Lazy Boy and came to a sitting position.  He went upstairs briefly and checked on the boys. 

He called out to the closed doors.  “Hey you guys, just wanted you to know that your Mom said she loves you.”  No response back.  He, in fact, had said this phrase every night since the pandemic started and the boys were used to it.  He opened the door to Drew’s room.  Drew was reading a Manga book.  John did a slight wave at Drew who just looked at him.  Then he closed the door.  Next, he could hear video game sounds from Patrick’s room so he didn’t even bother to open that door.  He knew better though with Nick’s room.  He always knocked first with Nick because Nick was older and he could get testier. 

Nick said, “What?”

John opened the door.  Nick was laying across his bed with his phone in his hand probably from texting with Abby. 

“Nothing,” said his Dad. “Just wanted to make sure you’re still alive.”  Nick scowled at him and he closed the door. 

John put his hands to his eyes and muttered to himself, “Teenagers.”  John missed the good old days when they would spend more time with each other than with their electronics but he realized his boys were growing up and needed their alone time. 

After that he went back to the living room where John Cusack with the boombox overhead was still frozen on the screen.  He watched it oddly and went up close to examine it.  Then he blinked a few times and he proceeded to go to the basement. 

He knew it had to be down there.  The basement was old and musty smelling.  It had lots of storage space and lots of stuff thrown here and there.  Carol hated organizing the basement and rarely went down there.  She didn’t like creepy basements.  So, he looked at the stacks of boxes and holiday decorations and stuff here and there.  He walked towards the old cupboard in the back with the sliding doors and shelves.  He was pretty certain, if it was anywhere, it would be around there. 

He started going through Carol’s old stuff.  There were lots of old medical books and such from college.  There were old pictures of the two of them at various functions throughout the years.  He stopped and smiled at an old college photo of them dressed up as Fred Flintstone and Wilma for some costume party.  He kept digging through the boxes and stuff until about thirty minutes later, he found it. 

It was her old stereo from college.  It was the really old one from like 1993 that she had kept forever.  It was not quite a boombox but heck, it sure looked close enough.  It had two cassette tape players and a CD player at the top.  He took out the electrical cord and opened the battery compartment.  It needed 8 D batteries.  Geesh, what a battery guzzler.  He didn’t know if he had 8 D batteries in the house. 

He set the old stereo on the nearby table and before he turned, he saw something else that had been underneath the stereo.  It was an old black leather case full of old CDs.  It was Carol’s first music collection.  He pulled it out and dusted it off.  It was really dusty. 

He brought the leather case over to the table and flipped to the first page.  It was an Alan Jackson CD.  John laughed.  God, Carol sometimes had bad taste in music.  She was eclectic.  He would give her that.  He kept going through the CDs.  He wanted to find the perfect song.  As he looked at each CD, he thought about the songs on them.  On the second to last page, he found the CD he wanted.  He found the song as well.  It was the perfect song for Carol.  It was number 7. 

John started to get excited about the plan formulating in his head.  He thought it might be a little crazy but……. well, hell……. why not?  He went to the storage closet and found the box of batteries and prayed he would find some D batteries.  Luckily, he had two packs of four.  It was perfect.  It was getting late that night and with all the stores closed early, there was no way he could get more batteries until the next morning.  He happened to luck out. 

He put the batteries into the old stereo and turned it on.  He held his breath and hoped it would work.  Yes!  The light came on and it worked.  He fist pumped the air.  Yes!  Yes! 

John tested the old CD in the stereo and as the song he picked out played, he smiled more and more. 

Next step in his plan was to go to the kids’ old toy/art room.  It was on the other side of the house and rarely visited now.  He flipped on the light and looked around at the toy collections and bookcases, the bean bags, the musical instruments, the art easels and all the art supply off to one side.  He was looking for some particular items. 

He found three white posters and set them on the floor, one after the other.  Then he dug around in the art file cabinet and pulled out a paint brush.  He also pulled out some old paint the kids used to use.  It was tempura paint, the kind they used in schools.  When the kids were little, Carol used to work with them on art projects drawing race cars or sailboats or whatever their imaginations could think of. He had a flashback to those days.  Carol sitting in the little chair in the room at the little table beside a little Nick and they were coloring together.  She was smiling and she was beautiful.  And Nick was smiling at his mother. 

John got back to work on the three signs.  It took him a good two hours.  It was 1 am before he finally stopped and stepped back, admiring his handiwork.  He had even drawn a red heart on the last one.  He cleaned up his mess and left the signs to dry.  Then, he went upstairs to sleep for a little bit.

At 5 am, he was up and waking each of the boys.  He told them to go to the kitchen.  They were groggy and grumpy as hell but he eventually, did convince them to go.  They sat around the kitchen with disheveled hair and pajamas and their father told them about his plan. 

At first, Nick said adamantly, “No way!”  The other boys agreed with Nick.  Even Drew shook his head no.  But, when their father explained the situation fully and explained how sad their mother was, and that she needed them ……they softened up a bit.  John also had to do a little bit of tough negotiation. 

30 minutes later, they were all dressed and, in the car, driving towards New York City.  The traffic wasn’t difficult this time.  The three signs and boombox with CD were in the trunk.  The three boys were in the backseat with their heads all down looking at their phones.  Nick was looking at YouTube.  Patrick was playing a game.  Drew was reading his favorite Manga Fanfiction site.  Occasionally, one of the boys would look up at their surroundings and sort of roll their eyes or shake their head and go back to their phone.  John hurried along the route to the hospital where Carol worked. 

They parked in the parking garage and carried their stuff to the grassy spot across the street from the hospital cafeteria.  The cafeteria was a large glass enclosure with many windows.  They knew that Carol always went there first to get her morning cup of coffee and meet with a few colleagues for breakfast before her shift started at 7 am.  They were just in time.

John called them together for a group huddle on the lawn.  The sun was just beginning to rise and folks were going in and out of the hospital.  It was going to get busier and busier.  Drew looked around at all the other people and started to get second thoughts.  So did the other boys but John convinced them. 

John turned the volume up to max on the stereo.  He set the song to 7 and hit the pause button.  The boys, meanwhile positioned themselves in front of their dad.  Each one was holding a sign with their back to the cafeteria across the street.  John was nervous all the sudden and wondered if this whole thing would flop horribly and he would be publicly disgraced.  Oh hell, he thought and then he thought of Carol and how she sounded on the phone last night.  She needed them.  He resolved to do what he was going to do. 

He got his phone out of his pocket and dialed her.  The phone rang three times and then she picked up.  He was nervous.  He told Carol to come outside the cafeteria. 

Carol looked around the cafeteria.  She said, “John?” and she looked quickly about the place and then out the window.  It startled her to see them across the street, her boys and her husband standing in the grass.  She told her colleagues and they looked out too.  John told her again to come outside and her friends were welcome too.  He hung up. 

She looked down at her phone and looked out the window.  She and her friends, some nurses and doctors and medical staff, they wandered out from the cafeteria and across the street in the grass across from the boys and John. 

Nick looked at his Dad, “You owe me,” he said quietly.  He too was nervous and embarrassed.  All the boys looked uncomfortable but they stayed in place. 

“Ok,” said John and he nodded first at Nick.  Nick turned around with the sign in his hands.  It read We love you Mom!

John nodded at Patrick.  Patrick turned around too with his own sign.  We miss you Mom!

The boys and John noticed Carol smiling across the street and her colleagues smiling too.  Other people had stopped too to watch as well.  One person even had their phone out and was filming it on video.  Nick started to lower his sign when he saw this but he looked back at his Mom.  She was smiling and holding back tears.  He reluctantly brought his sign back up. 

“Ok,” said John and he cued Drew to turn around.  At the same time, John hit the play button on the old stereo and he hoisted it overhead just like he’d seen John Cusack do it in the movie.  He felt utterly ridiculous and he noted that people were filming this but he continued to smile and look at Carol. 

Drew turned around with his sign and it read You are our hero!

Just then, the music clicked on.  It began to play very loudly an old Foo Fighters song from Carol’s college days, one that John was certain she would recognize.  It played My Hero. 

John kept holding the boombox overhead just like he’d seen John Cusack do.  The boys kept holding their signs up.  More and more people stopped to watch them and some videotaped them.  They were all pretty embarrassed but they held their ground and smiled for Carol. 

The song lyrics rang out There goes my hero.  John and the boys kept in place for their mom and her friends.  More people were coming out to see what was going, other medical staff as well.  When the song finally ended, John lowered the boombox.  The boys turned around and looked at him embarrassed and this time, they all said, “You owe us.” 

He winked at them and said, “Thanks.  I mean it.”  People in the small crowd were clapping now.  Some were drifting back inside to the hospital.  A ginger kid with goofy glasses on the side was still filming on his phone and all three boys looked at the guy sheepishly.  They headed to the car with blushing faces. 

John stood alone on the grass looking at his wife.  She was smiling and trying to hold back tears.  She smiled again.  John smiled back.  They both walked forward to the edge of the street between them.  They stood on either side of the street away from each other. 

“Thank you,” she said.  “I like that song.  I miss you all.”  She wiped a few tears away and tried to smile again. 

“We meant it, Carol,” he said. 

They kept looking at each other across the street.  The ginger kid kept filming them and John looked over at him and motioned his hands for the kid to stop but he wouldn’t stop.  He just kept filming.  John tried to ignore him.

“So, how did you convince the boys to do this,” asked Carol grinning at him.  She knew it must have taken a lot. 

John looked at her and slowly pulled three pieces of paper from his pocket.  He read them to her.

“Drew wants Promised Neverland books 13 and 14.  That was the easy one.  Patrick said he wants Animal Crossing……and Nick,” he began.  “Nick was the hardest to convince.  He wanted a new phone.” 

“What?” she said. 

“Yes,” he said and he nodded.  She laughed.

“I agreed to a gift card for him instead.”  He smiled.    

“When this whole thing is over,” he said, “we’ll go on a trip together or maybe a dinner date.” 

“I’d like that,” she smiled.  She looked at her watch.  “I’ve……I’ve got to go, John.” 

“I know,” he said and just looked her way. 

“I love you,” she said. 

“I love you too,” he replied.  They both smiled at each other. 

“Go on,” he said, “We’ll head back.  The kids got some zoom meetings for school this morning.” 

“Ok,” she said and she waved goodbye.  He waved goodbye too and they both walked away from each other, each one turning their head every now and then to look back.  At the cafeteria entrance she stopped one last time to wave goodbye.  He stopped and raised his hand goodbye.  Then she disappeared inside.  He turned and went back to the car where the three boys were waiting. 

He drove back home.  He was smiling but it was kind of a sad smile.  The boys were playing on their phones again.  When they got home, the boys went to their rooms, closed their doors, and John was left alone again.  He cleaned up the house and did some more laundry and dishes before starting back to work.  The boys did their school zoom meetings that morning.  The day went pretty well. 

John tried calling Max Hogard again to convince him to go to the Literary Fair.  Max said no again.  He was curt and blunt with John. 

“No,” he said again. 

After John got off the phone again with Max Hogard, he spent the rest of the day on work and making dinner.  A little after 7 pm, he got a phone call from a neighbor friend. 

“Hey, you’re on the news!” said his neighbor.

“What?” said John.  Ah no! he thought.  It must have been that ginger kid.  Great he thought to himself and he felt even more sheepish. 

“Yeah, check out channel 9.  Some video of you holding a boombox outside the hospital,” said the neighbor.

John groaned. 

Just then, Nick came out of his room and yelled at his Dad.  Great thought John.  I’m in trouble.

Nick met John at the stairs. 

“We’re on the news!  We’re on the damn news!” said Nick with a horrified look.  “Abby told me!” 

The other boys came out of their rooms too.  They all looked embarrassed and were thinking what would their friends say. 

“You owe us double,” said Nick and he glared and went back into his room and slammed the door.   The other boys went to their rooms too. 

John put his hand to his eyes and wiped them.  He hadn’t anticipated this.  He sighed.  He went to the garage and backed out the car.  He headed to the local Wal-Mart. 

He found a $50 Amazon gift card for Drew, a copy of Animal Crossing for Patrick, and for Nick he found the gift card near the cashier stand.  He was standing in line with the boys’ bribes, when a man came up behind him. 

“Hey, you’re that guy on the news!” the man said.

John looked up with chagrin.  He nodded hesitantly.  He realized maybe he needed to add more to Nick’s gift then. 

“Hey what you did……that was pretty cool.” Said the man. 

John just said, “thanks.”  The cashier looked at him curiously but he looked down. 

The man in line said to the cashier, “This guy was on the news tonight.”  John just kept looking down and hoping to get out of there quickly.  He paid and left. 

“Have a good night, man,” said the guy behind him.  The cashier smiled at him. 

The next few days with the boys were a little awkward.  Nick was still mad at him and the other boys just ignored him.  Somebody had put the video on Facebook apparently too and it ended up going viral from what John heard.  He stayed in his home after that, feeling embarrassed.  His colleagues heard about it and told him, “Way to go, John!”  He just smiled sheepishly. 

He got a phone call later that week from some person at Good Morning America.  They asked him to appear on the show via online.  When the boys heard the news, they just groaned.  He didn’t want to do it at first, but reluctantly he agreed.

The next day, with the boys upstairs, he sat at his laptop in the kitchen and met with the host from Good Morning America.  He was extremely nervous about the whole thing but she was very kind and gracious.  They talked about the frontline workers, the nurses and doctors at the hospital and all they were doing to fight the pandemic.  John said a lot of nice things about the hospital staff and so did the host.   She played his video again and he just looked on awkwardly with a smile.  As the interview was closing, he was hoping to get off air soon.  He felt uncomfortable. 

She said, “John, before you go, I have a surprise for you.  I want you to meet someone special…. someone who saw your video and agreed to come online too.  He happens to share your first name too, John.” 

There was a pause.  Another screen popped up and when John saw who came online his jaw fell open and he about fell out of his chair. 

“Hey, John,” said the actor John Cusack from the other screen. 

Oh God thought John but he smiled.  John Cusack smiled back. 

The host from Good Morning America continued, “We wanted to thank you, John.”  John Cusack nodded.  The host continued, “and we wanted to thank all the doctors and nurses at your wife’s hospital and all the medical staff.”  The host explained that they started an online fund for people all across the nation that had heard the story to donate to the hospital and other hospitals in New York during the pandemic.  They said the whole nation was worried about New York City.  The host held up a sign for John. 

“See John, donations have poured in from people all over the country that saw your video.  We’re pleased to announce we’ve collected 1.5 million dollars to donate to the fund for the hospitals.”

John smiled but he was having trouble smiling because he was fighting back tears now too.  He felt as veclamped in that moment as Madonna on an old SNL skit.  He struggled to say, “thanks.”

“You’re a hero too,” said John Cusack and he smiled on the screen. 

It ended up being a great interview and when it aired, his bosses called to congratulate him.  The rest of the day went okay.  The boys were no longer avoiding him as much.   They all sat down to spaghetti dinner that night.  The boys, as usual, gobbled up their food.  Patrick and Drew cleared their plates and went to their rooms.  Nick stayed behind and helped his Dad.  He stood off to one side as his Dad started to put plates in the dishwasher.  Nick looked at his Dad thoughtfully.

He said, “You love Mom a lot, don’t you?”

John stopped cleaning dishes and nodded. 

Nick looked down.  “I love her too.  We all do.”

John looked up at his son and smiled.  They hugged.  Nick went back to his spot near the fridge.  His phone beeped. 

John looked at Nick and smiled.  He said, “You better get that.  It might be important.”  They both knew it was Abby. 

Nick smiled and went upstairs again.  John continued clearing dishes and putting stuff into the dishwasher.  He got a phone call and looked at his phone.  His face fell at that moment.  It was Max Hogard. 

Great he thought. 

He answered the phone anyway and with his best effort he said, “Hi Max, what can I do for you?”

There was a gruff cough on the line and then Max said, “Saw you on Good Morning America.”

John got silent. 

“I’m in,” said Max. 

“What?” said John with surprise.  He covered the phone and jumped up and down elatedly.

“I’m in.  I’ll go to the event and we can talk tomorrow about your other marketing plans.  Have a good night, John,” said the gruff voice over the phone. 

John said, “Thank you!  Thank you!”

“Oh, and John…,” began Max Hogard.  “Tell your lovely wife she’s my hero too.”  There was a click on the line and the call was ended. 

John began jumping up and down in the kitchen with fist pumps in the air. 

“Yes!  Yes!” he said.  He was so happy. 

Later that night, he started to work on the marketing plan for Max Hogard for their meeting tomorrow.  His phone was near the laptop when it beeped.  It was a text from Carol. 

He looked at the text.  It read, “I’ve been thinking about that old boombox.  You must have found it in the basement with my college stuff.  Did you find my old CD case?”

He typed back, “Yes.”

She typed more.  He watched the little conversation box with the three periods for her reply.

“Go to the CD case and find my old Pink Floyd CD.  Put it in the boombox and hit 3.  That is my song for you.  I love you, John.  I love you with my whole heart.  Have a good night.”  That was all she texted. 

He went to the CD case lying by the boombox on a side table.  He opened it and scoffed at Alan Jackson again.  Then he went through it to find Pink Floyd.  He turned on the boombox, pushed 3, and hit play.  It played the song How I Wish You Were Here.

He smiled and went back to the marketing plan work.  He would see her soon.  When this whole thing would be over.  He couldn’t wait to see her again. 

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