The Accident in Five Small Parts
The girl’s father arrives home from work and sits at the kitchen counter without taking off his work boots or rinsing out his thermos. He puts his head in his arms like her fourth grade class does when the teacher gets frustrated. The girl goes about rifling through the junk drawer because she remembers she saw rubber bands in there. The phone on the wall rings, and she answers it. On the other end, a woman asks for the girl’s father.
“Dad,” she says, “it’s for you.”
The father remains still.
“Dad. Rich’s mom wants to talk to you.”
Going around the counter, she bends slightly to look at her father in the space between his head and arms. Only an eye and a part of a cheek are visible. She watches as one tear, then another, break free and rush to land in the small puddle under his nose. The third “Dad” gets caught in her throat. She pushes the junk drawer closed, leaves the phone on the counter, and walks out of the kitchen.
The father genuflects and crosses himself in front of the casket. The mother is caught up with Rich’s sister, who holds a cup of coffee in her hands like prayer and vacantly talks about how wonderful the funeral home has been, how she wasn’t sure they’d fit Rich’s body in the casket the way they’d found him with his one arm stretched out like that.
The father places his hand on the casket and leans in. Rich is inside, cleaned up in a nice suit, his mouth quiet in a thin, waxy line. The lights begin to make the father sweat. After wiping his brow with his thumb, he reaches into his sport coat and removes the remainder of a fifth of whiskey and a hammer. Slowly, he places each item next to the body.
Behind him in line, a man’s voice says, “What’s Bill doing?” This makes the mother, and most everyone else in the room, turn her attention back.
The mother lets her chance to say goodbye go and pulls the father away.
“What? That’s what he liked,” the father says. He shakes her off and moves out into the hall because he wants a cigarette and somewhere he remembered a room with snacks and sugar sounds good right now.
The mother remains where the father leaves her and scratches her plan to tell Rich’s mother about the miscarriage, about how it’s not the same thing but kind of is, how crushing it is to lose someone made from who you are.
While she lets her daughter play with her old make-up, the mother clips the Sunday edition of the The Maplewood Gazette.
January 12, 1986. Local man found dead. Icy road. Motorcycle accident. Alcohol involved. The writing was stoic. Death called for flare. Oak trees stripped, waiting. White stretched like serenity. In the center, a bright red bloom rising in protest.
Soon, the mother will open the paper again. She’ll read a letter. A woman will write to the editor after reading about the accident. She’d seen the man on the side of the road waving at her car. It was after midnight, she was alone, and she didn’t stop.
Bill and Rich sit at the bar. It’s nearly 11 PM, and Bill buys the last round.
The father plans to head out to Rich’s new place to work on the cabinets. With winter coming, the weather will put all work on the house at a standstill. But the mother insists on tagging along and making it a family day instead. She’d promised the girl a trip to the lake nearby. As the mother puts sunscreen on the girl’s face, the men load a beer cooler in Rich’s canoe and laugh about a mutual friend of theirs. The mother focuses on the girl, telling her she has to wear a t-shirt to shield the rest her body from the sun and that she has to wear tennis shoes if she wants to walk in the sand. Local kids come out this way to party because it’s so far removed from the town. The beach isn’t clean like the one at the club. Broken glass and hooks and god only knows litter the shore. When Rich found the property, the mother asked why he’d want to go way the hell out there, and the father answered that he didn’t know, maybe Rich wanted to use all his power tools without someone coming in the garage and telling him to be quiet. Rich just smiled and said he thought the town was growing, and his property might be worth good money in five or ten years.
The mother spreads a towel in the sand while the girl wades into the water, and the men paddle out to the middle of the lake. The girl wants to swim but gets nervous when she can’t see the bottom anymore, then gets bored looking for shells. Slowly working her way out of her mother’s sight, she walks along the beach, stopping once to remove her shoes, which have become heavy with water. She stands on the shore and waves to her father who doesn’t see.