They left and we went inside. Mom was exhausted after the whirl of people and cooking.
She opened all the windows and doors wide to air out the house from Uncle John and his everlasting smoking. I liked that smell and wished she wouldn't do that because it took his smell out and also took out the smell of Aunt Marylou's perfume.
(If I could smell that one more time...I have no clue what it was she wore. They likely don't make it anymore)
I remember everything about that weekend.
In the excitement over our guests, Mom had almost forgotten that it was picture day at the school on Monday. This would be my first school portrait so I must look my best. Much to my woe, it is decided to re-pin my hair up in pin curls before bed. Sleeping on a head full of prickly bobby pins is something I will tolerate once a week on Saturday but two nights in a row?
The paper from school advises the outfit to be "colorful" but not overly so. My blue sailor suit with the red tie would fit the bill but alas, it's too short in the skirt now and too tight in the chest. Mom decides on some puffed sleeve number that I despise and hangs it on the door knob of my room.
The phone rings.
Mom answers but there's only silence on the other end and then who ever it is hangs up.
"I don't want to wear that dress, Mommy, I hate that dress!"
The phone rings again. Again the person on the other end has no desire to say a word despite a volley of "Hellos" from Mom and rings off with a "click".
Mom's getting frustrated now. Once is alright, likely a wrong number but twice...
The phone rings again and Mom pounces on it like a cat.
"HELLO! " she orders.
A pause and then a young man's voice. I hear Mom say, "Why, Danny Lee, what a surprise!" and then see her brows knit together.
"Yes of course," she says, "you want to speak to Robert, he's right here."
She's trying to sound all nice about this but I can tell she's miffed over him wanting to talk to Dad and not her.
"Ask him what he wants!" she hisses. Danny Lee is her half brother who hardly ever calls let alone come to visit. Why on earth would he want to bypass her, his own sister....half sister.
The plot thickens when Dad announces that for what ever reason, Danny Lee wants to be sure Dad is where he can be alone on the phone. Now he's done it! Mom's dander is really up now!
She who can brooch no secrets to be kept from her stews in silence as Dad takes the call in the office. The fat really hits the fire when she hears Danny ask if Mother has rung off the other line yet. Bringing the receiver down with some force, she stalks off. She'll fix his wagon!
I watch as she pads like a cat to the back bedroom. There's another phone in there and I know what she's going to do. She's very good at deftly plucking that receiver from its cradle so that you'd never know she was on the other line. Par for the course with Mother.
The scream that follows is not par for the course. High, shrill...anguished. The scream carries on frantic wings all over the house. A crash of a wooden door; base beat of my Father's feet slapping, boom, boom, boom, boom across the floor, thru the living room, down the hall.
I cut thru Audrey's room, running to the hall. The scream is coming from the back bedroom. My Mother stands with the receiver in her hand, her mezzo soprano belting out one long,earsplitting scream then little ones, like an opera singer trilling notes and then another long high shriek.
My Dad is trying to wretch the receiver from her fingers, trying in vain to be heard above the auria of shock and distress.
This is why Danny Lee had called twice and hung up when he heard Mom's voice. This is why he asked to speak to my Dad alone. This is what he had to say:
They were getting close to home, Aunt Marylou, Uncle John, Grandma Mary Jane and Grandpa Ray when it started to rain. A two lane highway on a Sunday evening and it's raining. Every driving instructor tries to pound it into your head; slow down when it starts to rain...the first few minutes of a downpour are the most dangerous...slow down...slow down...
Likely John didn't slow down. He wanted to get home. The man in the other car on the other side of the highway didn't slow down either. He had been made to spend all day at the in-laws, a perfectly good Sunday. At least the Father-in-law had offered him some beer...make that two...maybe three. He was tired.
His wife was just weeks away from having their first child. Maybe she was tired too. The end of a weekend; the whole conga line of cars on that strip of highway is full of tired and over spent people all wanting to get home before dark, before the rain gets worse. Press down on the pedal, it's just rain...
Witnesses told highway patrol that it all happened so fast. One minute the other car is where it belongs on the road and the next, it's sliding, skidding, spinning into the oncoming lane of traffic where Uncle John's car is bearing down on the rain slick road...
Four miles away, customers in a truck shop hear the resulting crash as clear as if it had been in the parking lot. The cars behind Uncle John are sliding wildly, their drivers clawing at the steering wheels, trying to get clear of the hell that is exploding before them. The air is alive with flying debris...and bodies.
The force of impact slices the other car in two pieces, flinging its un-belted occupants airborne into traffic. Uncle John's car comes to rest some several feet away, crumpled, mangled.
The rain comes down.
Over on our side of the state, it's gotten cloudy. The attic door flies open with a crash and suit cases come bounding down the ladder. The phone is ringing, the doorbell chimes again and again as suddenly our house fills up with people.
Clothing is being tossed from the closet from the drawers into the suitcases. Everyone is racing around in circles. Someone tries to pull me away from being in the way of everything but I edge back into the fray. What is happening? What are you doing? Where are you going?
At one point, Mom takes me aside. Black streaks of Maybeline eyelash powder crease down her face like spider leg wrinkles. This frightens me and I pull back. Listen to me she is saying, listen to me...
An accident...the car...your Grandmother Maryjane...maybe all of them...gone...
"Where?" I whisper.
"To live with Jesus" is the reply.
She releases me, tells me to be a good girl, mind the ladies, help look after Audrey...
People are piling out onto the front porch. I follow them, push to the front of them.
I watch as suitcases go into the car, just like theirs did.
I watch as my folks get in the car...just like they did.
I watch as they go to pull away, go down the hill to the highway...
just like they did not more than two hours before.
And now they've gone to live with Jesus.
The thought hits me like a blow, the realization:
What on earth is to stop my folks from going to live with Jesus too?
"Shut up! Stop it" one of the ladies is shaking me now. A distant sound, a thin keening of grief. Someone is screaming.
"Stop it at once!"
A flash of flesh, the stinging crack of an open hand on a face.
The world goes dark.
Up to that point, I remember everything about that weekend.
I wish I didn't.