Fiction, Vol. 7.4, Dec. 2013
Years after the accident, I saw the clunky Dodge that killed my baby puttering down the road, puffing fumes from those rusty tailpipes. That ocean blue hood glared at me, and I could smell the bone-white interior—leather, stale French fries, blood: I knew it was that same Dodge.
My husband Felix dismissed it.
“Our car was totaled,” he said.
The sight of that Dodge ended our marriage–finally. We seemed to mutually refuse to discuss the accident with each other but that didn’t stop the old feelings from swirling inside: blame and guilt. We both resigned ourselves.
A month later, Felix moved to Deshler, Ohio to live with his ailing father on their pig farm. I stayed in Toledo. I worked as an executive secretary at the Ford Federal Bank headquarters downtown. I grew up in the country, and I’d seen and smelled my share of pigs. Although, on spring days, when the air was thick with the odor of rain and lady bugs, I sometimes cracked my office window and imagined Felix with the sleeves of one of his plaid shirts rolled up, sweat matting his silvery hair to his forehead, the pragmatic glint in his eyes, and I was not sorry we divorced. As far as I knew, we still owned adjoining burial plots next to Hollie’s grave.
Hollie’s was a difficult birth: for her and for me. She was overdue, and labor had to be induced. By the time she came, I was ready to pull her out myself. That might account for our rocky beginning together, and everyone’s constant hovering. Nobody hovered more than my older sister Meryl. We visited Meryl and her husband one afternoon for a Sunday dinner of roast, sweet potatoes, and angel food cake with strawberries—the only thing Meryl truly knew how to cook.
“Here’s how you hold her,” Meryl said, lifting Hollie out of my arms. Her own three daughters dutifully played with dolls and blocks on the living room floor.
All afternoon she disapproved of the way I held my own child, said I was too stiff with her. She instructed me in how to burp her properly, how to rock her, how to be more gentle with her than I already was.
“Don’t pinch her leg against your stomach like that,” Meryl said. “You’re gripping her too tightly.”
She sighed and shook her head until she finally just took Hollie out of my arms.
“Mom always said that mothers learn by doing,” Meryl said. “She helped me out a lot when I had my girls.”
Our mother had died three years earlier of complications from Lou Gehrig’s disease. Meryl and her husband had paid for many of the medical expenses.
I bristled at hearing Meryl talk about Mom. It made me wish Mom was still alive to help me. I watched Meryl pat my baby’s bottom and rock her. Hollie looked so natural lying there. She squealed, her little mouth opening into a yawn. Her face seemed to relax in Meryl’s arms the way she always did when she cuddled into my husband Felix’s.
“Babies are so warm,” Meryl whispered, peering down at Hollie. Hollie’s dark-colored eyes lit up at my sister’s smile.
On the staticky television in Meryl’s living room where Jim and Felix sat stone-faced, wiggly basketball players ran up and down the court. Felix sighed and got up from his chair, moved the antenna. He hated things unclear.
Hollie’s tiny fingers pulled at the front of Meryl’s blouse, lips curled into a frown. Her baby face reddened. Splashes of tears became visible on her smooth cheeks, and she began to shake her little fists and kick.
“She’s hungry for you,” Meryl said with a chuckle.
Felix took a step away from the television and paused to look at me.
Meryl held Hollie out for me to take. “Babies always prefer to be with their mothers. She’ll calm down in your arms if you hold her how I showed you.”
Hollie didn’t. She never had. When she was born, I had been too depressed, too tired, to feed her and rock her. So my husband had. That day at Meryl’s house, I put a hand under her unsteady head and clutched at her sides. I rocked her, hummed to her, checked her diaper.
She didn’t cuddle into me when I held her. Her strong little legs kicked and pushed at my elbow. Didn’t she know who I was? I knew what her fussing meant and so did Felix, who kept his hands in his pockets as if I might be jealous. I wasn’t. Meryl fidgeted and rubbed her hands along her thighs—shaking her head at Hollie’s shrill cry and squirming. She wanted to take Hollie again.
“Evelyn, you need to—“Meryl started.
Felix saved me by lifting Hollie out of my arms and snuggling her into his. I took consolation that it didn’t silence her right away. She squawked a few more times before nestling into him and letting her eyelids blink closed with a heavy, contented sigh.
She’d gotten used to him during the time when I’d lain in bed all day and cried and he took care of her. She’d gotten used to his way.
Branches clawed at Meryl’s living room window. A drizzle ticked against the panes as my baby Hollie rested in her father’s arms. I walked over and stroked my finger along her soft chin. She looked up at me and smiled.
Three months later, Hollie and I were in the accident that took her life. We didn’t have the graveside service until I was released from the hospital a week later.
“Wrong place at the wrong time,” was how my father chose to explain the accident to himself. At the service, he whispered the words into my ear just the same. He probably thought those words should comfort me, spare me somehow—to indict chance instead of me.
“The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.” The minister cleared his throat, read from his palms.
His deep voice sounded more comforting than what he said. Accepting the whims of an arbitrary God, or the sweeping force of fate is meaningless next to the guilt I knew I deserved to feel.
My father, two sisters, husband—we all stared at the ground where Hollie was buried. It looked gouged. The little lamb on her marble headstone, so pale, so chiseled, so like her face was. Would she have chosen it for herself? Felix insisted we buy our headstones at the same time. He had brought pictures of different styles to the hospital—a pragmatist to the last. I lay in that bed, remembered the easy crunch of bone, and told him that I couldn’t choose. So, next to hers, are two plain, granite rectangles: the cheapest he could find, I’m sure.
At Holly’s graveside service, my father ignored the arthritis in his swollen knees and stood there still as a stoic. He had told my sister Meryl to bring him. He wouldn’t sit in his bedroom while one of his grandchildren was being buried. So, there he stood, leaning on his walker, wheezing and coughing in strong gusts of wind. I knew why my father wouldn’t say the one thing I needed to hear, why no one spoke it aloud. He felt betrayed—betrayed by a mother’s split-second turn of the wheel. Violated by how the wrong instincts could dodge a head-on collision and allow the right side of the car (instead of the driver’s) the full impact. I can still see her in the rearview mirror, strapped into that baby seat.
What kind of mother are you? That’s what my father’s watery eyes asked. Unnatural, his deep sigh answered.
I loved my baby, even though I worried that I shouldn’t have become a mother. Hollie was an accident, the result of a cheap wine buzz on a lazy Sunday afternoon one September. But, I did want her. Love her. I was her mother, after all.
At Hollie’s graveside, Felix seemed content to keep his eyes silent. Though whenever they met mine, I knew they were filled with emotions only the blood can feel. He knew that words, especially the ones I needed to hear, would only dilute his feelings, so he said nothing, looked up into the clouds. Didn’t he know that I knew he blamed me?
My two sisters protected their own children from sharp cemetery winds—fingers gripped young shoulders as if to show what a mother’s love should look like. A wing for chicks to gather under, to be shielded by. I reached out my hand to Felix, but he stared into the sky, kept his hands warm in his pockets.
Hollie was buried in a country cemetery—a patch of land donated by a family who’d planted enough of their own in that dirt they felt the old bones might want fresh company. Faded headstones huddled. New additions were scattered out beyond the rest. Hollie’s plot lies alone on a small slope, on the periphery. As if someone picked up her tiny oak casket and tossed it, and us with it, to the farthest edge.
Since moving to Toledo, it had been years since I felt the land without pavement. Raw earth. Flat skyline. For all its calm, the country air, the smells of wheat and livestock, I knew I would have to miss it before it would ever miss me.
I don’t miss it. Being out there, in that cemetery where my own mother’s headstone cooled in the shadows of a crooked oak, I was reminded of when I was a girl. Of that day when I stared down the road and saw our neighbors’ bodies strewn across their fields: the entire family dead. Mallory Bledsoe with his left arm twisted backward, his right hand still clutching a piece of frayed rope. It was the first time I had asked why, the truest moment of my life.
As I stood there, the grass whispered. That grey headstone waited by my feet. My name and birthdate already chiseled in place, the death date blank. I stared into the clouds, too, slid my hands into my own pockets. Didn’t warm them.
If I’d turned that wheel the other way, Hollie would still be alive, and I would’ve proven myself as a mother. The minister told us to go in peace.
Felix cried, pulled his wedding ring on and off, thanked the minister for his comforting words. My two sisters flanked my father and helped him into the passenger’s seat of the Cadillac that used to be his, now driven by Meryl. She walked over to me and tiled her head.
“Now Hollie’s in heaven with Mom,” she said.
She blamed me, too. I felt it. My arms ached from the crutches holding me up. I tensed for her embrace but instead she locked her arms in front of her and sighed.
“Mom’ll take good care of her,” she said, her eyes looking down at the little lamb on Hollie’s headstone.
The scab under my chin itched.
Better care than me?
Her pained face, crimped eyebrows, already answered my silent question.
I wanted to explain to her that it wasn’t a conscious choice. That the wheel practically turned itself. That it was a fluke impulse. I didn’t have time to think before I smelled blood; my knees jammed into my chest. I wanted Meryl, Felix, Father, all of them to know that a mother’s first thought is always of her baby, and mine was, then and ever since. What happened was a horrible accident.
Meryl gathered her two daughters under her arms and kissed their brown hair.
“We’re so lucky that you’re still alive, Evelyn,” she said. “We’d be lost without you.”
I felt Felix’s hand on my back. Meryl smiled and guided her girls over to the car. My arms were numb, empty of blood. My only child’s headstone and small casket, cold reminders of what I saw down the road years ago, of having once been in the “right place at the right time.”
After the service, my father didn’t look over once he was in the car. Neither did my two sisters. Their squirming children were the only ones who dared to meet their eyes with mine. Mouths straight. Faces pale with an understanding deeper than their thoughts could speak. I wondered if any of them could’ve said what I needed to hear. If they could’ve answered the one question I’d had on my mind for years, never more so than that day beside Hollie’s grave.
My arm muscles burned as I hobbled beside Felix to the rental car we had to get since our Dodge was supposedly totaled. Felix buckled me in, asked me if I was comfortable. I wasn’t, but to spare him further worrying, I gave him a quick smile. I wanted to tell him that if I had to do it over again, like I dreamt I did every night, I would do the right thing. Doesn’t he realize it was an accident?
The sound of the key in the ignition was harsh, startled me as Felix drove onto the dirt road leading away from Hollie’s cemetery. Whoever rented that car last was a smoker. I cracked the window, but the cry the wind made put me on edge so I rolled it back up.
The view out the window was a straight line interrupted by clumps of woods. Houses and silos only made the distance between them seem more of a distance. Neighbors were the secure barn light miles down the road, a human presence understood more than felt.
“The minister had nice words,” Felix said.
I didn’t answer. I couldn’t. Felix was talking around things. Probably thought he was protecting me from the truth about what he felt.
Children played in front of a farmhouse. Swung on a tire. I heard them giggle, even as we sped past.
“Might want to slow down,” I mumbled.
From the corner of my eye, I saw him look over at me.
“You’re tired,” he said.
I wasn’t, but I gave him a weary smile.
I have asked Hollie for an answer to my question. When night comes and smothers me and I see her older, older than me. Why didn’t the Bledsoe family escape to their cellar? I ask her. It’s been on my mind with every split-second decision I’ve made, whenever I sit at what used to be our kitchen table and listen to the grandfather clock chime midnight somewhere beyond the squares of moonlight falling through the windows. And she tells me. So quietly. As if she’s never spoken at all.
Every member of the Bledsoe family had deep auburn hair, pale glowing skin, features you could recognize even when they were bloated and shining in the mud of their wheat field.
Bits of red wood and nails were sprinkled in the lush, swaying rows. Six children, two parents, three story house, silo, freshly painted red barn, all reduced to debris. Bricks from the chimney flattened patches of wheat, their tractor was overturned in the middle of the road, the wipers on their old Ford pick-up scraped across the shattered windshield. None of the Bledsoes lay next to each other. The tornado had scattered them across their wheat fields. Only thing still standing was their cow Clover, chewing cud on what had been the front lawn. The bell on a frayed rope around her neck dangled and clunked as she moseyed toward greener grass.
“Dumb luck,” was how my father chose to explain it to himself. We all stood, car running, doors still open, assessing our own untouched farm in disbelief.
On our property, the only thing out of place was a stranger’s rag doll, abandoned on our porch steps. The sheets Mom had hung out that morning flapped in the storm’s remains.
We saw the funnel cloud on our way home from the horse races and watched it swirling down the road where we lived; telephone wires flailed as poles snapped and disappeared into the storm’s blackness. Across the fields, the tornado snaked closer and closer to the Bledsoes’ farm until we watched their house explode into pieces. My father turned down a dirt road that ran parallel to ours. The funnel cloud was like two giant hands clasped, one tugging the other, up into heaven, down into the dust. We drove around it, kept it to the right of us, until those hands released each other, one hand’s fingers stretched to touch the tips of the other.
“Don’t get too close,” Mom said, not letting our father get within ten miles of our house until she decided it was safe.
I thought I saw a body lying in the fields once we were home. It looked like it could’ve been Mallory Bledsoe. But as I took a step forward for a better look, Mom gripped my shoulder and steered me toward our house. As if something in those fields should be turned away from. As if knowing too much would be not knowing how to ever forget.
The view down the road wasn’t affected by the absence of our neighbors’ house. The view stretched from one patch of woods to another, as if the Bledsoes had belonged more to the stories we tell ourselves looking back than to the land they’d thought they possessed. The Bledsoes had been our nearest neighbors for generations of both of our families. And on that day, a man and his family lay in the muddy wheat fields, ants harvesting their gift from above, blackbirds circling where the clouds had been.
I did see Mallory’s face. Before Mom turned me away. The storm had thrown him closest to our farm. His wide hazel eyes were the color of the wheat. His cheeks puffed. There wasn’t any surprise on that face. Resignation, maybe. Had he been fighting against something or did he turn his face full to the wind? His left hand was twisted. Right hand clutched a piece of frayed rope.
The Bledsoes were difficult to tell apart. They all looked so much alike, with their deep auburn hair, pale skin, but I could recognize Mallory with my eyes closed. Of course, I’m sure he never thought much of me as a neighbor, much less a friend, but whenever he whistled in the fields, or sat in their barn’s cool shade to milk Clover, I would store up the sight of him until his features blurred, and he became an ache I felt inside. Still feel inside to this day.
He waved to me once, and to a young girl of eleven, that wave was all but a marriage proposal. He gave me my first sleepless night the month before the storm. I saw him stripped to the waist out in those same fields. Red hair thick and curled. Chest broad, sunburnt. That night, when I crawled into bed and closed my eyes, all I could see was shirtless Mallory Bledsoe, no matter how many times I tossed and turned—the thought of him, the way the sun shone off his naked shoulders warmed me until I had to drink a glass of water and sit outside on the porch. He was such a gentle and nurturing young man. I believe he talked to the plants, or else to himself. It was out in those fields that he waved to me. The only time he ever had. Raised his hand up toward the sky, as if his fingers could caress the clouds. I waved back, glad he was too far to see the glowing crimson of my blushing cheeks.
Clover was his baby. He bathed her. Fed her. Brushed her. Raised her from a calf. Our cow was lucky to get hosed off more than once a year. Yet there Clover stood that day, the Bledsoes dead near her hooves, her black and white spotted coat never looking healthier. Her jaw slid back and forth, and her large eyes blinked as she smelled the rope around her neck, hungry for more grass.
Meryl picked up the rag doll from the porch steps and wrung it out. My other sister clamored for possession but Meryl hugged it tight.
“Give it to Evelyn,” Mom interceded.
“She hates dolls,” Meryl complained.
I didn’t want it. All day I’d been sick, nauseated. I know why Mom wanted me to have it, to make up for what had happened to me at the races. All morning humidity clouded the stagnant air, hung in a slate blue dam that threatened to break to the south. The rural Ohio air smelled a little like the fish that spawned in the Maumee River and minerals, the pungent earthy odor of fertility. As if the land was in heat. Under my arms, between my legs, I felt sweaty, sticky. My stomach burned, tingled whenever I so much as breathed too deep.
After my father’s horse sprained its ankle, and he sat cursing his “typical damn luck,” under his breath, we got up to leave. The back of my floral sundress cooled me when what little breeze there was blew through. I’d heard women talk about their “cycles” and their “Dear Aunt.” My mother and sisters would discretely wash stained garments. But I’d been too much of a tomboy to expect that one day I would enter that same world of blood, mid-day baths, and feminine products to be carried in the deepest pockets of purses. Later that day, Mom and Meryl would sit me down for a conversation about “being a woman,” and everything they thought it meant. But at the races, what I remember most vividly were how two boys behind me looked everywhere but at me. As if they’d simply blotted me from their view. Other girls my age whispered into their palms, then turned their faces away. My cheeks felt hot. I thought they all reacted that way because of embarrassment. I never would’ve felt ashamed if they hadn’t averted their eyes, hadn’t acted as though my unasked-for maturity had sullied their neat, clean lives. My father had headed for the car without us. Mom quickly wrapped the woolen sweater she carried everywhere around my waist. I’d always thought she was a fool for taking that sweater with her, even on the hottest August day, but as I stood there, concealed in the convenient security of that sweater, it all made sense.
So Meryl handed me the doll I didn’t want and no longer needed, while my father and mother walked through the Bledsoe’s wheat field, checking the dead. Only Clover and my two parents could be seen on the skyline; all else was the howl of wind in our ears.
Why hadn’t the Bledsoes escaped to their cellar when they saw the storm was coming? A person can see far and clearly in rural Northwest Ohio. The line between sky and earth. Red barns from surrounding counties dot the horizon. Entire families no bigger than a wheat grain pile into their Dodges to spend a Sunday afternoon at the horse races. A person can see the nothing in between. For the Bledsoes to miss a funnel cloud—not to have heard the roaring wind, or to have felt the quake of thunder—seemed impossible.
That same day, Felix took me to a used car lot, saying it was a better idea than going home to an empty house. Little orange plastic flags crackled and snapped above the rows of cars. Some of the cars shone through their wear better than others. Felix pointed to a dark crimson Caprice nearest to the drive. Needed my blessing, he said. I wanted to ask him why buying a car was so important that we had to choose the car the same day our daughter was buried, but I didn’t. That was Felix—all he ever saw were the practical things: we needed a car, the rental car was expensive, and we would be driving by the used car lot on our way home anyway.
My hips throbbed, stitches loosened from the car heater blowing on my legs, and I smelled my own skin. Like a weeks’ worth of dried tears, unwashed layers of myself, sharp natural odors looming above places so secret only their smells made me conscious of them. Other than the sponge bath I had told Felix I could give myself, I hadn’t been able to wash myself clean. The cast on my leg, the stitches, the bruises and scabs, every touch remembers how easily that steering wheel turned in my hands, how when I turned that wheel I ran into myself. Maybe if I had been looking? I had been. Headlights glared out from around the semi and I reacted.
Felix opened my car door, helped me stand with my crutches. The wind flipped my hair back to its roots.
“You too tired to have a look?” he asked, waving toward the Caprice.
All of it had a purpose; I could feel it. He made me go through that for some deep reason he would’ve frightened himself to say aloud, and I went through with it for the same reason.
“If it doesn’t take too long,” I said above the wind.
The plastic flags snapped straight, then swerved. The Caprice was so dark red it was almost brown. Except for a few minor dents and scratches, the car seemed fine to me, although no more fine than the car beside it or across the lot or the ones sitting in the “dirt cheap” section. We would own that Caprice until we divorced; now he drives it up and down those dusty Deshler roads.
“Like it?” he had asked that day. His black suit made him look older.
My baby is dead, I wanted to say. Don’t you know who I am? Those crutches made my shoulder blades knife me in the back.
“What’s your decision?” he asked, rubbing his hand over the hood, kicking the tires.
The Bledsoes must’ve seen the storm coming. That was my decision. Because I see all six of them, out in the fields. I’ve stopped seeing the glare of headlights, stopped hearing the semi honking. I’m no longer in that car, gripping that wheel. I’m running down to the end of the driveway, staring down the road at a young man grabbing hold of his prized cow by a piece of weak rope, trying to pull her across the field back to their barn. He’s leaning his weight on that rope, doing his best to run, but the screaming winds in the distance frighten her. A mother cries for her son by the open cellar doors, three brothers hurry out to help him, a father curses as he wraps his arms around his wife and tries to force her to safety but she pushes him away. On the horizon, the sky is dirt. Thick and dark, swirling, two hands clasped in a deadly handshake, one from heaven, the other out of the dust, the Bledsoe family and their farm caught in between. Sisters are gathering kittens and puppies, chickens and rabbits. The scene is ridiculous. A young man sacrificing his life for a damn cow, a family sacrificing their lives for a single member, too late to change their minds if they were even using their minds at all. Mallory turns, at the edge of their wheat field he turns, face full to the wind, accepting his fate, in a split second of surreal clarity, but it’s too late to run, his fingers on the rope, still pulling, are gripped too tightly to be released. He has to save Clover, the cow he’s raised from a calf. But it’s foolish. Didn’t he know it was foolish? Didn’t he know he’d be killed? That the storm would lift him off the ground, suck away his air, leave him cold and pale and dead in the wheat fields? Dead with wide eyes and puffed cheeks, food for the ants and swirling blackbirds. A fool. All of that to spare the life of a damn cow who didn’t even bother to sniff the fingers of her dead owner. Just chewed cud like any other day, like she would for all the years she stood in our fields. I want to laugh at it, at the way Hollie never wanted to be in my arms, at how absurd it was that a child wouldn’t want her own mother. I want to laugh at how seeing that old boxy Dodge again could end my marriage—I wanted to laugh.
I remember feeling Felix’s stare on the back of my head as we stood in that used car lot. I could hear his dress shoes shuffle closer to me.
“You’re cold,” he said. His voice raw, flat.
And there it was. No surprise. Resignation, maybe. The very words everyone had been so afraid to say. I wondered if it felt better having said them than it did to hear them.
“Am I?” I asked, the sound of my own words lost in the wind.
He wrapped an arm around my waist, the other across my shoulders, pulled me out of the wind into the comfort of his warm chest.
“It was an accident, Evelyn,” he said as I closed my eyes. “A very horrible, unfortunate accident.”
“No,” I answered, and I turned my face full toward the wind. “I should’ve seen it coming.”