McGee-centric character study/romance. Want to start at the beginning? Click here.
Chapter 292: Shared Past
“My wife is dead.”
It feels weird to say it out loud, doubly so because there’s no one else in the room with him.
And he’s fairly sure that saying it to himself isn’t what Cranston meant by say it to someone.
God, how the hell do you say that to someone? You don’t just walk up to them and say, ‘Hey, guess what, my wife is dead.” That’s just horribly uncomfortable for everyone involved. And sure, Gibbs doesn’t usually go out of his way to avoid making people feel uncomfortable, but there’s a huge difference between staring down a perp and polite conversation among equals.
And at home, in his basement, starting the measurements for Anna Palmer’s crib, he’s not even sure who he’d say that to.
Mike would have been his first choice. But, he looks around, and doesn’t see Mike’s ghost, doesn’t feel him, and he’s fairly certain that if he tells Rachel he’s having heart to hearts with ghosts about dealing with grief he is rapidly going to find himself embracing an even earlier retirement than he was expecting.
Fornell and Ducky had both been upset that he’d never told them. Understood, eventually, but still upset. So… he puts his pencil down and picks up his phone and hits Ducky’s contact number.
“Hello, Jethro.” Penny’s voice. He’s getting ready to ask for Duck when a few things hit him. Penny’s a widow. Penny lost her husband after forty years. The husband that by all accounts she adored.
Penny’s done this.
Penny has perspective.
“Hi, Penny. Are you busy?”
“Not right this second.”
“Wanna get some coffee with me?”
He hears the pause, where she’s wondering what is going on. “Are you serious?”
He nods, realizes she can’t see it, and says, “Yes.”
“Do you know you dialed Ducky?”
“Okay. Did you want me to give him a message.”
“Nope.” He can imagine the perplexed look on her face.
“Do you have my phone number?”
“So why did you call him?”
“Why did you pick up?”
“Phone was sitting next to me, and he’s in the kitchen.”
“Then that’s why I called his phone. So, coffee?”
He can hear the confusion in her voice as she says, “Sure.”
“Jethro,” Penny says as she slips into the booth across from him. Before he could say much more than ‘Hi,’ Elaine’s over.
She hands the menu with the specials on it to Penny, while asking, “What can I get you to start off with?”
“Iced or hot?”
“Hot.” Elaine nods at that and then says, “New friend, Jethro?”
He smiles at her. “Keeping track of my ladies?”
“You know it, Hon. Looking for your next sweetie.”
“Elaine, this is Penny, Tim’s grandma.”
She looks more carefully at Penny and says, “I should have seen that straight away. Shape of your eyes and face… Well, welcome Ms. Penny. Used to just get Jethro, but the last few years he’s been bringing the family in. Get to see your darling baby girl on Sunday mornings. Anything you want, just holler and we’ll have it for you. On the menu or not.”
“Just Penny is fine.” Eliane nods as that and heads off to get her coffee. “Sunday mornings?” Penny asks Gibbs.
“You know I’ve been going to church and Sunday dinner with them?”
Penny nods; Breena and Tim had mentioned that in passing.
“Last two, and hopefully going forward, weeks, we’ve had breakfast here first. Eight on Sundays, you and Duck want to come, to breakfast or church too, you’re welcome. Meet Breena’s family. They’ll probably invite you to supper after.”
Penny nods at that, smiling, as Elaine set a cup of coffee down in front of her, along with cream and sugar.
“Not sure how you like it, but I know tastes tend to run in families, and he takes his with cream and sugar.”
Penny pours a splash of cream into her coffee as well as one sugar. “They do tend to. He had his first cup of it at my house. Would have been ten or eleven, drank some of mine, liked it.” She stops telling the story there, but Gibbs catches the hesitation and knows there’s more on that for when Elaine heads off.
Elaine sets a piece of strawberry pie in front of him to go with his coffee. She looks to Penny. “We’ve got pecan and raspberry, too. I know Tim likes both of them.”
“Is the raspberry a frozen pie or a jam pie?”
“Oreo cookie crust, raspberry ice cream, raspberry puree, whipped cream and chocolate shavings on top.”
“Yeah, he would love that,” she says with a smile. “Bring me a piece, too.”
Elaine nods at that and heads off again.
“So, let me guess,” Gibbs says quietly, “John was fine with him drinking coffee until he saw it was yours and sweet and creamy and then yelled about how men drink it black?”
“Something like that. I was there, so it was just a few sarcastic comments, not full out yelling, but in context of what happened when I wasn’t there, Tim dropping the coffee, spilling it down his shirt, which resulted in more sarcasm about being clumsy, and never drinking it again when his dad was around makes a whole lot more sense.”
Jethro shakes his head and grits his teeth. And while learning more about Tim and his dad is something he’s interested in, it’s something he wants to learn from Tim, and also if he gets into it, he’ll use it as a way to avoid dealing with his own stuff.
He doesn’t know if Penny senses what he’s thinking, or if she’s just curious, but she asks, “So… what’s got you offering coffee, Jethro? We’re obviously not talking about Tim, or you would have had something to say besides just gritting your teeth. We planning a surprise for Ducky?”
“No. We could be, I guess, but we aren’t… unless you want to.”
Penny laughs at how startled he looks by that idea. “I’ll put that on the back burner. So, if it’s not about Ducky, what’s going on?”
He takes a sip of his coffee, not saying anything for a long second. Then put it down and exhaled deeply. “Did Tim tell you he’s got me seeing someone?”
“No, and what sort of someone?”
“A counselor. Dealing with…” another long exhale, “everything.”
“No. He didn’t mention that, and I’m glad to hear it.”
“Yeah, great.” He’s feeling monumentally uncomfortable, and while she’s listening attentively, she’s not meeting him halfway or filling in the blanks on her own. “It’s ummm… yeah…”
“Less than easy or comfortable?”
He nods decisively at that and jumps over the cliff. Dithering about it can’t make it any easier. “My wife and daughter are dead. They were murdered when I was in Iraq. They are the loves of my life. And they’re gone. And I haven’t handled it well. And I realized that you’ve dealt with something similar.” He tries to smile with that, but it comes off more pathetic than anything else.
Penny reaches across the table and squeezes his hand.
“You two were married forty years, right?” he asks as her hand withdraws.
“Yeah. Met in early ’46, when I was fourteen and he was twenty-four. The Langstons were a navy family, too, and my dad was Nelson’s commanding officer. Brought him home for working dinners a few nights a week. It was right after the war, I had a twenty and twenty-two-year-old sister at home, and my dad was dangling them in front of him, thinking he was good husband material for them.
“He was a Captain then. Working on making better aircraft carriers. I was bright and precocious and interested in math and geometry and how thing flew. My dad thought he was humoring me, letting me join in some of those conversations. After a few months of it, most nights we’d wrap up dinner, my mom and Elsa, the oldest sister would clear up the table, and Nelson would spread out his drawings and calculations, and we’d work on them together until I had to start my own homework or go to bed.
“By ‘48 he’d decided that he couldn’t do a better job of trying to build a better aircraft carrier until he really knew what it was like to fly. He was accepted into the naval aviator training program, and we got married fast and headed to Pensacola, three weeks shy of my seventeenth birthday.”
Gibbs shakes his head at that. Then he thinks for a moment. “Would have been forty years for us in October of ’18.”
Penny knows how old he is and does the math. “So you were babies, too.”
“Not quite that young, but yeah. We were eighteen when we met. Really met. Lived in the same small town, went to school together, but were never in the same class. And even if we had been, I probably wouldn’t have been brave enough to talk to her.”
Penny smiles at that.
“Were you Mrs. McGee back then, when you first got married?”
“Mrs. Captain Nelson McGee.”
Gibbs laughs at that.
Penny sips her coffee and takes a bite of the pie. “I was so obnoxiously proper back in the day. At least about things like that. Even back then having a seventeen-year-old bride, especially in the Officer Corp made you stick out. So, I dressed older, my manners were impeccable, and I was pretty enough to be attractive, but not so pretty that men wouldn’t listen to what I had to say when I said it. I didn’t talk a lot, not to the others, but when I did have something to say, it was always dead on right.”
“How’d you get to be Dr. Langston?”
“Finished high school by correspondence just about the time John was born in ’49. Had three more boys and finished my Bachelors by ’56. Began working on original research in ’57. I already knew that in the field I was working, medical technology, that Penelope McGee wasn’t going to get any traction. And P. McGee didn’t sound much better. So I’d publish as P. Langston. There wasn’t biotech per se at that point, but in ’61 John’s Hopkins wanted to move in that direction, and, without knowing P. Langston was a woman, they offered me a research position based on the strength of my publications. I said yes. They were awfully shocked when I showed up, but Dr. Renner, who ran the program knew I was the real deal, and kept me on.
“You know about some of the stuff I worked on after that. A lot of it is still classified. But by ’72 my husband was an Admiral, my oldest son was a Lieutenant Junior Grade in Vietnam, James, our second boy, had been killed in action, and Michael and Thomas were still too young to enlist.”
“I didn’t know you’d lost a child.”
“Hasn’t come up in conversation, and, though I’m sure Tim’s aware of the existence of his Uncle James, it’s not like they ever met.”
Gibbs nods at that. “You two made it through though…”
“By the skin of our teeth. By the end of ’72, I’d legally changed my name back to Langston and drawn up the divorce papers.”
“But never pulled the trigger on it?”
“No. We worked a lot of it out, and after that dinner parties at the Admiral’s house were always…” she smiles, “interesting. I was done being horribly proper, and he decided that having me, as me, in all my me-ness, was worth the occasional uncomfortable moment with the higher ups.”
“Not a lot of higher ups when you hit flag rank.”
“There is that. The number of guys he couldn’t tell to go to hell with impunity was fewer than ten.”
Gibbs thinks about that and nods. “What did you do when he died?”
“Handled it." She says with a rueful look. "I was a Navy wife, an Admiral’s widow, stiff upper lip and all that crap. The Navy took care of the burial. Whatever’s left of him is deep in the Pacific somewhere, maybe swimming around as ten or twenty generations of some sort of meat-eating critter. He’d have liked that. That maybe there’s a king crab out there that’s part him.
“You live with sailors or fishermen, you’ll notice something, they don’t, usually, eat crab. Maybe they do now, so few of them get killed in action, but especially when I was young, you could always tell a navy family or a fisherman’s family because crab and lobster, no matter how cheap it was, and in Boston it was cheap, never went on the menu. Didn’t know who you were eating. But he’d joke about that, how one day he’d be the biggest, meanest, oldest king crab scuttling along in the Pacific.” She makes a pincher gesture with her fingers. Gibbs smiles and nods.
“I knew it as soon as I heard the knock. There’s that, pause, stopping in front of the door that people just don’t do when its good news. I heard the footsteps, heard the pause, and then the knock, slow, precise, and I knew. Hell, back during Korea and Vietnam, until we lost James, I was one of the people who’d stand on the porch, next to the Chaplain, ready to help comfort.
“I planned a very proper memorial, stoically took the condolences of the probably thousand people who dropped in over the course of three days. John brought me his flag, but I wouldn’t take it. It meant more to him than it did to me, so he kept it. He’s got it in his office along with all the medals.”
She smiles again. “Four day after the funeral, after everyone had left, when I was just knocking about alone in my house, the way I had been doing for a decade at that point... It was just like him being at sea, except it wasn't because he wasn't ever going to come home again. That alone and waiting had changed to just alone. I broke down, finally let go of stoic, cried for days, and then I cut my hair off. Total buzz cut. I think it was a third of an inch long. Packed everything up. Gave most of it away. Put some of it in storage. Tim’s mom got a few boxes. And then I bought a ticket to Italy and spent the next two years traveling. We were going to travel. He had placed he wanted me to see. I had places I wanted to see. So, I did them. Took pictures. Sent post cards home. Tim probably still has some of them. Didn’t come home until I was feeling like a person again.”
“How’d that happen?”
“I don’t know.” The expression on her face is soft, comforting. “It just did. You ever chip a tooth?”
“You know how you just can’t not keep poking it with your tongue, and you end up with a chipped tooth and a sore on your tongue.”
He nods at that too.
“But eventually, you get the tooth fixed, and eventually your tongue stops hurting.”
“That’s what happened. Eventually it stopped hurting so bad. He went the way he wanted to. Sooner than either of us would have liked, but it was fast, painless, and at sea. He couldn’t have asked for more than that.”
“Still miss him?”
“Sure. Especially for family things. I love sharing Molly and Kelly with Ducky. That’s true and always will be. But I would have liked to have seen Nelson hold his great grand-daughter, too. Wanna hear something funny?”
“They would have liked each other. You’d have never gotten the two of them to shut up. Nelson loved stories, too, and had a million of them. He was a good listener and a good story teller and the two of them would have gotten on splendidly.”
Gibbs smiles at that, trying to imagine both men together.
“I think Tim gets that from him. He always had to put everything into stories. It was how he made sense of the world.”
“You have any serious boyfriends between Nelson and Ducky?”
She smiles at that, looking very amused. “I had friends. Some very good friends. Some less good friends. Some acquaintances. Ducky’s the only man I’ve attempted to live with, since.
“One of the things I’ve missed most about Nelson was a man who didn’t find my mind a threat. Someone who would love me because of it, instead of in spite of it. I’m an academic. Even traveling, I tended to stay in places filled with people who live and die by their minds. And what I rapidly found out was that men who had a brain, and a modicum of charm, and who weren’t intimidated by a woman with a brain, were all married by the time they hit my age. The ones who weren’t, were like Ducky, married to a job. Or they were grad students or undergrads, which was fun, but not any sort of long term solution.
“Jerks and blowhards existed in droves. Mincing piranhas who couldn’t have identified manhood, let alone been one, tons of them.”
Gibbs was looking at her curiously. It never occurred to him that someone who was proud of being arrested at different peace/feminist rallies would appreciate “manhood.”
She sees the look, and responds to it with, “Women don’t need men. But we want them. I never had any problem with any man who wanted me and wanted me to want him. I had and have a whole lot of problems with men who try to create or uphold a world where I need one to survive.”
“People like to be needed.”
“Men like power. Being needed creates power. Men especially love the power and hate the responsibility of that power. So they write laws that codify the power and let them off easy on the responsibility.”
Gibbs decides this is a good point to get off politics or philosophy or whatever this is and get back to family history and getting through grief.
“What happened after James died?”
“Didn’t like the last topic, hit too close?”
“Don’t like being judged based on the actions of every other asshole on earth. I imagine you don’t, either.”
“Fair enough. June of ’72. Things were slowing down, but not done, in Vietnam. Nelson was the newest Admiral of the US Navy. John was a Lieutenant Junior Grade. James was three weeks out of Annapolis, brand new Ensign. They were both turtle navy.” She gives Gibbs a questioning look, making sure he knows what that is. He nods, familiar with that term for Naval deployments on rivers. “Bringing supplies in, taking men out, stuff like that. Dangerous as hell, on a tiny boat, filled with weapons, moving through the jungle, no real line of sight, possible ambush from anywhere on shore, and on occasion, the rivers got mined, too.
“Three weeks in, his boat took fire, he didn’t make it.” She looks away from Gibbs, out the window of the diner, just staring into space for a long minute. “That never gets easier, does it?” she asks, shaking her head, ruefully.
“No. It doesn’t.”
“I’d already joined the peace movement at that point. Quietly. That was the deal Nelson and I had, once he made Admiral, I could be as outspoken as I wanted to, but before that, I needed to keep quiet. And I did. And he’d give me occasional bits of information on thing he thought were dishonorable, that no honest man could support, and I made sure they saw the light of day.
“Like what you were doing with the Annex project.”
“That was one of them. It’s one thing to be a warrior and to fight other warriors. It’s another all together to unleash plague and famine upon non-combatants. Neither of us approved of that. Napalm to clear a landing zone is one thing. Napalm on a village is another all-together.”
Gibbs nods at that. There have been numerous times he’s wondered what he would have done if he’d been five or ten years older and ended up in Vietnam. He and Fornell have had a few long conversations about that.
“When James died, quiet stopped. I started getting arrested. Admiral’s wife at protest march made for impressive headlines. I wanted to destroy anything that had a hand in sending my son off to die. But to do that, I had to cut ties with two of my sons, Michael was a plebe at Annapolis that year, and my husband.
“When we should have been pulling together to share the grief, we all ran our own separate directions and screamed it to the heavens.”
“But you pulled together eventually?”
“Eventually. Like Nelson, James was buried at sea. Should have been shipped home, but when you’re an Admiral you can get things like that done. We’ve never been a dust to dust family. From the sea we came, and to the sea we return. Or as Nelson would say, ‘We’re water given breath and set free to walk upon God’s green earth. Allowed a short time to see what else is out there, and then we’ll return to the oceans that gave us life.’ But, because of that, I never really got a proper goodbye. And I was so mad at him.
“Eventually in early ’73, Nelson got home. And we got a chance to talk, and yell, and cry, and scream, and fight and mourn and all of it… And when it was done, we still loved each other and we decided to stay together. What did you do after your girls died?”
“Earned my second purple heart the day they died. Didn’t come out of the coma I was in until after they were buried. I was invalided home, granted compassionate leave on top of that. And for a week, I more or less lay on the sofa, stared at the ceiling, and did nothing. Only time I did anything was when Mike Franks, the NIS agent handling Shannon and Kelly’s case would come around. He’d get me up enough to eat something and occasionally shower, took care of me in a hands off sort of way.
“Wasn’t like he was asking me questions or anything. They knew why my girls had been killed. They knew who did it. It was just a matter of trying to get the guy who did it.
“That was the pattern for about two months. He’d pop by once or twice a week, usually with a bottle of bourbon, two cups of coffee, a bag of McDonalds hamburgers and fries, and ‘fill me in on their progress’ while pouring the bourbon, coffee, and food down my throat.
“Eventually he hit the point where they knew where the guy was, but Mexico wasn’t going to go out of its way to capture or extradite him. So, Mike invited me in to his office, told me that it’d be a good plan to show up having gotten a shower and shave so no one would notice me when I went in, and then while he was ‘releasing personal items to me’ he got called away from his desk while the file with everything about the man who killed my girls, including their best guess as to where he was, was sitting open on his desk. Then he ‘forgot’ I was in there for two hours.”
He could remember Franks heading back into that dingy little office, seeing him there, giving a big, mock startled jump, saying, “Good Lord, Gibbs! Completely forgot you were in here. Here, let me get this signed.” He took the bag with the ‘personal items,’ which was actually empty, none of the evidence in the case could go missing, signed it, staring at him, and said, “I hope you found what you needed,” his eyes giving Gibbs permission to do what he wouldn’t.
Gibbs nodded at him. Didn’t say anything, and left.
“When Hernandez ended up dead, killed by a sniper’s bullet, no one fussed much. Guy ran a drug family, competition’s pretty fierce in that job. The Federales didn’t exactly strain themselves looking for who shot him. After that case, Mike got transferred back east.
“Like you, I packed everything up, headed back east. I put that life in a box, bunch of boxes, stuck them in the attic, found Mike again, and learned how to be a cop.” He fiddles with his coffee cup as he says that.
“And now you’re taking that life back out of the boxes?”
“Been doing that for ten years. Trying to figure out what to do with it’s more likely.”
“That’s always the question, isn’t it?”
He blows out a frustrated breath. “Working on getting some.”