Another sunless day. Rain has washed away most of the lingering, sad snow. The beautiful blizzards of 2013 remain in memory and, possibly, in the slightly higher water table measured by the Kansas farmers. Our heater barely stretched its muscles yesterday, though my office, with its wide windows on the Westport world, still carries a biting chill. Can this be spring?
A child came back to the roost last evening, borne to St. Louis by a school friend and fetched from there by his father. My weary body succumbed to sleep before their midnight arrival, but I stirred enough to know that they had arrived, then slipped back into dreams.
Another winter, more than three decades ago. A journey west, to San Francisco, where each day held rain, and mist, and the mucky cold of a seaside January. Only a day trip to Muir Woods saved the vacation. I didn't know our hosts and found nothing in common with them. I quarreled with my companion, our relationship past its prime and quickly rotting. But I stood beneath an ancient petrified redwood, my head cranked backwards, eyes scanning high into its towering branches. An abiding calm eased through my body, easing my tense, thin frame huddled in an over-size jacket. I raised my arms, my hands open, reaching for the beauty. I drew in a soothing breathe of a cleaner air than I had ever known.
We had gone to California through Utah, spending an extra day in Provo due to the sad breakdown of my old Nova, the Nova that my traveling companion had taken apart on Christmas Day under the guise of effecting the same fix for which we ultimately paid a hefty price to a sly mechanic. We routed our return through Arizona, and left a day earlier than we had planned, having done what we could to enjoy the California dampness, the storm-drenched sights, and the waning welcome of his old friend and the friend's disapproving wife.
As night fell, some night, a moonless night in early January 1981, our approach to Flagstaff halted behind a stationary line of cars. We had not conversed for miles. He had taken the wheel an hour or so earlier, and I slumped against the window, staring over the edge of the highway, to dark shapes below, the slopes of mountains the names of which I had not bothered to learn. We sat, motionless, silent, unconcerned about the reason for delay so much as how we would endure each other's presence for even a few extra minutes.
Ahead, emergency lights pierced the darkness. Figures passed between the halted traffic, a dozen or so cars to the east of us. Someone raised a bank of generator-powered safety lights. Still we sat, but our curiosity overcame our sullen thoughts and we began to ask each other what might be happening.
A half-hour later, a uniformed figure approached our window. We're going to start the line moving, but be prepared to stop, he said. My friend asked the reason for the delay. The officer hesitated, a grim look over-taking his lined face. It's an accident, he said, finally. He looked away, to the south, searching the dark horizon. A semi jack-knifed, and hit a passenger vehicle. He brought his gaze back to us. You guys got your belts on? We assured him that we did. He nodded. Drive careful, now, he finished, and moved beyond our car, to the next traveler, the next question. The line inched forward.
As we neared the bank of emergency vehicles, the extended black pole-lights on the right, the fire-trucks on the left, I realized that a stationary ambulance still lingered at the scene, a useless stretcher forgotten in the yawning gap of its open rear doors. My stomach clenched.
I still do not know what power stayed our course at the exact location where the two vehicles had landed, over the edge of the highway, on a small plateau about a dozen yards beneath my window. The truck's cab hand fallen squarely on top of a station wagon. A huddle of emergency personnel stood beside the wreck. The roof of the passenger car stood level with their waists.
Beyond the spot where fate had drawn those people, we could accelerate. Silence overcame us again, not the spiteful silence of traveling companions who have grown weary of one another but the stunned speechlessness of certain, awful knowledge. I twisted in my seat, hungry for some scrap of hope, and in that moment, saw one paramedic fall against the chest of his partner, whose arms reached around, whose eyes, briefly, keenly, met mine.
The morning rain has dwindled. My husband bestows a small kiss on my lips, then saunters off to tennis. Our youngest son sleeps the deserving sleep of the straight A student. To the north, our daughter no doubt lingers in the lazy warmth of a Nebraska weekend, and eight hours east of here, my Thespian playwright has probably not yet stirred, the cast-party for his latest acting stint having kept him celebrating late into the night.
And I, mother and wife to them all, sit in our dining room, surrounded by wood and the delicate sheers that hang at our windows. The Flagstaff news, heard in a cheap hotel room, on a January morning in 1981, had told of a family of five killed in a late-night accident involving a tractor-trailer. The truck driver was unhurt, the announcer assured us. I stood, that day, with a Styrofoam cup of coffee, watching the television and shaking my head. You're wrong, I said to the screen, to the clueless and carefully coiffed lady, who sat at a mock desk, reading copy handed to her by a skinny guy with a headset. I saw the wreckage. No one came through unharmed that night. No one.
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