Kenn was the one who gave Jukey her nickname when she was twelve years old.
She was Judy before that but one day they went to Johnny C's Diner for an ice cream float. The place was surprisingly empty and Judy put some coins in the juke box and she danced non-stop for five songs right there in the middle of the diner which Kenn found slightly embarrassing (especially when people started coming in and staring at her).
"Okay, Jukey, let's go," Kenn told her when the last song was over and the name stuck, mostly because she liked it and she laughed when he first called her that.
Kenn was a pudgy overweight kid and he was grateful for Jukey's friendship. She was head spinning beautiful even at twelve and Kenn knew it was only a matter of time before Jukey moved on to the good looking popular guys so he wanted to enjoy her while he had her attention and interest.
Kenn lived across the street and he and Jukey were bosom buddies mostly because they both had screwed up families. Jukey's mom had taken ill and her husband inexplicitly disappeared soon thereafter, apparently unable to deal with the unexpected drama and trauma.
Kenn's mom died when he was young and he lived with his Dad who wasn't good at being a single dad. One of the reasons Kenn was a chubby kid was because he existed mostly on fast food and junk food as his Dad wasn't much of a cook, even when he was around. If Kenn's Dad wasn't working fourteen hour days at the factory, he was down at The Bullpen Tavern drinking or passed out on the living room couch.
Kenn hung out at Jukey's place much more often once her Mom got sick and her dad took off. He helped by mowing the lawn, raking the leaves, clearing the driveway of snow, and maintaining the backyard in-ground pool. Ironically, across the street, his own house looked dumpy and unkempt as his father wasn't much of a house guy and Kenn had no motivation to keep up with the chores there.
Kenn lost most of his 'baby fat' as Jukey had called it around the time he turned thirteen – he grew a few inches too - but he also developed a severe case of acne which made him feel just as bad about himself.
Meanwhile, Jukey was filling out and becoming even more beautiful and popular as she advanced through middle school.
"You'll always be my 'neighborhood best buddy," Jukey told Kenn as she began to slowly shun him around school. "I can't help it if I make different school friends."
Kenn wasn't in the position to argue and he was grateful that Jukey was still his friend at home. Jukey started spending more time away from her house and it was Kenn who spent time with Jukey's mom who was basically housebound in her illness. The two would watch afternoon television together while waiting for Jukey to come home.
Kenn remembered when Mrs. Miller was energetic, bubbly, friendly and personable but lately she was tired, stoic, quiet, and disinterested and she didn't talk much. She also looked horrible – she lost weight and she didn't pay much attention to her appearance. There were vials of pills everywhere and occasionally Mrs. Miller used an oxygen tank to help her breathe easier.
Mrs. Miller didn't eat much and that was another reason why Kenn had lost some weight. Now that he was older, his father wasn't bringing home McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and pizza as much, figuring the kid was old enough to fend for himself. Kenn got most of his nutrition from school lunch.
"Hellooooo!" It was a cheerful Jukey finally coming home.
"Hello, Jukey," Kenn replied, although her mother barely looked up.
"How you doing, Mom?" Jukey asked when she came into the room.
Her mother shrugged indifferently.
"Are you hungry?" Jukey asked. She glanced at Kenn. "Did she eat anything?"
Kenn shook his head no and Jukey rolled her eyes. "I really don't need this tonight," she sighed. "Noodles and cottage cheese?"
That seemed to be the menu of choice most nights in the Miller house.
Jukey went into the kitchen to prepare the quick meal. Feeling as though he had been relieved of responsibility, Kenn stood and went into the kitchen to talk to Jukey.
"I really don't know how long I can put up with this," Jukey sighed. "It's emotionally exhausting."
Kenn took a seat at the kitchen table and folded his hands on the table top, watching his friend prepare the food. He could see the reflection of his black hair in the kitchen window. He wanted to ask her where she had been and what she had been doing but he knew there was no point t. She'd probably not tell him the truth anyway, especially about who she had been with.
"I bet you'd do anything to make it better," Kenn said.
"Yes," Jukey answered with a heavy sigh.
"But you can't," he said slowly, unable to take his eyes off her. She was so beautiful.
"You don't have to remind me," Jukey complained.
Kenn didn't respond. He just kept looking at her wishing he knew everything about her instead of trying to guess her secrets.
"Are you going to stay and eat?" Jukey asked.
"No," he said.
"She eats a Meals-on-Wheels for lunch," Jukey said defensively. "She's just tired by the end of the day. And when she's tired she's not hungry."
"I know," Kenn replied. "It's okay."
"No it's not," Jukey stated. "I miss my mother," she sighed. "The one I had before she got sick."
"It's okay to want our mothers," Kenn said.
Jukey looked over her shoulder at him, knowing he knew exactly how she felt. "We aren't supposed to want our mothers that way," she complained. "With a pining intensity of loss and sadness, but I do and I know you do too."
"But I know I can't have it," Kenn said. "There's nothing I can do."
"I feel guilty," Jukey admitted, dumping the egg noodles into the boiling water in a pan on the stove top. "Like I'm betraying my mother, being disloyal because of my resentment. She's the one person who was my hero but sometimes it feels like she's already dead."
"You'reallowed to have feelings," Kenn said.
"Are we allowed to be completely sad?" Jukey wanted to know.
"Sometimes," Kenn allowed.
"Nobody at school knows any of this," Jukey revealed as she stirred the noodles. "I keep my school life separate from my home life."
"Me too," Kenn said. "But everybody knows anyway."
"Because your mother's dead," Jukey pointed out.
"And because I'm not popular like you," Kenn shrugged. "Your friends don't want to know. They just want to be popular."
Jukey got the cottage cheese out of the refrigerator. "I have dreams about my mother," she said as she drained the hot water from the pan at the sink. "It's a reoccurring theme. She makes me kill her. Mercy killing. And I do it. Drown her in the bathtub most of the time or throw her out the attic window." She stared at Kenn. "Do you think that's a subconscious wish? Do you think I'm a horrible daughter?"
"We can't control our dreams," Kenn replied. "It doesn't make you a bad person because your subconscious is consumed by your mother's bad health and your fear of her death."
"Do you ever dream of your Mom?" Jukey asked as she dumped the noodles into a large bowl and mixed the cottage cheese in.
"Sometimes," Kenn revealed. "They're usually happy dreams. But then I wake up feeling sad." He stood from the table. "I guess we're just two sad people," he sighed as he headed for the door.
Jukey didn't answer and she didn't look at Kenn as he left the house.