"Aw, heck, Momma, I hate dressing up," he complained, scuffing his sneakers and scowling.
"Do as I say, Christopher, for your father. You know he does a lot for you; the least you can do is make him proud of his family."
He grouched off, leaving me to run out to the back garden and fetch the twins, who immediately began to wail. "One bath a day is enough!" screamed Carrie. "We're already clean! Stop! We don't like soap! We don't like hair washings! Don't you do that to us again, Cathy, or we'll tell Momma!"
"Hah!" I said. "Who do you think sent me out here to clean up two filthy little monsters? Good golly, how can the two of you get so dirty so quickly?"
As soon as their naked skins hit the warm water, and the little yellow rubber ducks and rubber boats began to float, and they could splash all over me, they were content enough to be bathed, shampooed, and dressed in their very best clothes. For, after all, they were going to a party--and, after all, this was Friday, and Daddy was coming home.
First I dressed Cory in a pretty little white suit with short pants. Strangely enough, he was more apt to keep himself clean than his twin. Try as I would, I couldn't tame down that stub- born cowlick of his. It curled over to the right, like a cute pig's tail, and-- would you believe it?--Carrie wanted her hair to do the same thing!
When I had them both dressed, and looking like dolls come alive, I turned the twins over to Christopher with stern warnings to keep an ever observant eye on them. Now it was my turn to dress up.
The twins wailed and complained while I hurriedly took a bath, washed my hair, and rolled it up on fat curlers. I peeked around the bathroom door to see Christopher trying his best to entertain them by reading to them from Mother Goose.
"Hey," said Christopher when I came out wearing my pink dress with the fluted ruffles, "you don't look half-bad."
"Half-bad? Is that the best you can manage?"
"Best I can for a sister." He glanced at his watch, slammed the picture book closed, seized the twins by their dimpled hands and cried out, "Daddy will be here any minute--hurry, Cathy!"
Five o'clock came and went, and though we waited and waited, we didn't see our father's green Cadillac turn into our curving drive. The invited guests sat around and tried to keep up a cheer- ful conversation, as Momma got up and began to pace around nervously. Usually Daddy flung open the door at four, and sometimes even sooner.
Seven o'clock, and still we were waiting.
The wonderful meal Momma had spent so much time preparing was drying out from being too long in the warming oven. Seven was the time we usually put the twins to bed, and they were growing hungry, sleepy and cross, demanding every second, "When is Daddy coming?"
Their white clothes didn't look so virgin now. Carrie's smoothly waved hair began to curl up and look windblown. Cory's nose began to run, and repeatedly he wiped it on the back of his hand until I hurried over with a Kleenex to clean off his upper lip.
"Well, Corinne," joked Jim Johnston, "I guess Chris has found himself another super-broad."
His wife threw him an angry look for saying something so tasteless.
My stomach was growling, and I was beginning to feel as worried as Momma looked. She kept pacing back and forth, going to the wide picture window and staring out.
"Oh!" I cried, having caught sight of a car turning into our tree lined driveway, "maybe that's Daddy coming now!"
But the car that drew to a stop before our front door was white, not green. And on the top was one of those spinning red lights. An emblem on the side of that white car read STATE POLICE.
Momma smothered a cry when two policemen dressed in blue uniforms approached our front door and rang our doorbell.
Momma seemed frozen. Her hand hovered near her throat; her heart came up and darkened her eyes. Something wild and frightening burgeoned in my heart just from watching her reactions.
"Mrs. Christopher Garland Dollanganger?" inquired the older of the two officers as he looked from woman to woman
Our mother nodded slightly, stiffly. I drew nearer, as did Christopher. The twins were on the floor, playing with tiny cars, and they showed little interest in the unexpected arrival of police officers.
The kindly looking uniformed man with the deep red face stepped closer to Momma. "Mrs.
Dollanganger," he began in a flat voice that sent immediate panic into my heart, "we're terribly sorry, but there's been an accident on Greenfield Highway."
"Oh . . ." breathed Momma, reaching to draw both Christopher and me against her sides. I could feel her quivering all over, just as I was. My eyes were magnetized by those brass buttons; I couldn't see anything else.
"Your husband was involved, Mrs. Dollanganger."
A long sigh escaped from Momma's choked throat. She swayed and would have fallen if Chris and I hadn't been there to support her.
"We've already questioned motorists who witnessed the accident, and it wasn't your husband's fault, Mrs. Dollanganger," that voice continued on, without emotion. "According to the accounts, which we've recorded, there was a motorist driving a blue Ford weaving in and out of the left-hand lane, apparently drunk, and he crashed head-on into your husband's car. But it seems your husband must have seen the accident coming, for he swerved to avoid a head-on collision, but a piece of machinery had fallen from another car, or truck, and this kept him from completing his correct defensive driving maneuver, which would have saved his life. But as it was, your husband's much heavier car turned over several times, and still he might have survived, but an oncoming truck, unable to stop, crashed into his car, and again the Cadillac spun over. . . and then. . . it caught on fire."
Never had a room full of people stilled so quickly. Even the young twins looked up from their innocent play, and stared at the two troopers.
"My husband?" whispered Momma, her voice so weak it was hardly audible. "He isn't. . . he isn't. . . dead. . . ?"
"Ma'am," said the red-faced officer very solemnly, "it pains me dreadfully to bring you bad news on what seems a special occasion." He faltered and glanced around with embarrassment. "I'm terribly sorry, ma'am--everybody did what they could to get him out . . . but, well ma'am . . . he was, well, killed instantly, from what the doc says."
Someone sitting on the sofa screamed.
Momma didn't scream. Her eyes went bleak, dark, haunted. Despair washed the radiant color from her beautiful face; it resembled a death mask. I stared up at her, trying to tell her with my eyes that none of this could be true. Not Daddy! Not my daddy! He couldn't be dead. . . he couldn't be! Death was for old people, sick people . . . not for somebody as loved and needed, and young.
Yet there was my mother with her gray face, her stark eyes, her hands wringing out the invisible wet cloths, and each second I watched, her eyes sank deeper into her skull.
I began to cry.
"Ma'am, we've got a few things of his that were thrown out on the first impact. We saved what we could."
"Go away!" I screamed at the officer. "Get out of here! It's not my daddy! I know it's not! He's stopped by a store to buy ice cream. He'll be coming in the door any minute! Get out of here!" I ran forward and beat on the officer's chest. He tried to hold me off, and Christopher came up and pulled me away.
"Please," said the trooper, "won't someone please help this child?"
My mother's arms encircled my shoulders and drew me close to her side. People were murmuring in shocked voices, and whispering, and the food in the warming oven was beginning to smell burned.
I waited for someone to come up and take my hand and say that God didn't ever take the life of a man like my father, yet no one came near me. Only Christopher came to put his arm
about my waist, so we three were in a huddle,--Momma, Christopher, and me.
It was Christopher who finally found a voice to speak and such a strange, husky voice: "Are you positive it was our father? If the green Cadillac caught on fire, then the man inside must have been badly burned, so it could have been someone else, not Daddy."
Deep, rasping sobs tore from Momma's throat, though not a tear fell from her eyes. She believed! She believed those two men were speaking the truth!
The guests who had come so prettily dressed to attend a birthday party swarmed about us now and said those consoling things people say when there just aren't any right words.
"We're so sorry, Corinne, really shocked . . . it's terrible. . . ."
"What an awful thing to happen to Chris."
"Our days are numbered . . . that's the way it is, from the day we're born, our days are numbered."
It went on and on, and slowly, like water into concrete, it sank in. Daddy was really dead. We were never going to see him alive again. We'd only see him in a coffin, laid out in a box that would end up in the ground, with a marble headstone that bore his name and his day of birth and his day of death. Numbered the same, but for the year.
I looked around, to see what was happening to the twins, who shouldn't have been feeling what I was. Someone kind had taken them into the kitchen and was preparing them a light meal before they were tucked into bed. My eyes met Christopher's. He seemed as caught in this nightmare as I was, his young face pale and shocked; a hollow look of grief shadowed his eyes and made them dark.
One of the state troopers had gone out to his car, and now he came back with a bundle of things which he carefully spread out on the coffee table. I stood frozen, watching the display of all the things Daddy kept in his pockets: a lizard-skinned wallet Momma had given him as a Christmas gift; his leather notepad and date book; his wristwatch; his wedding band. Everything was blackened and charred by smoke and fire.
Last came the soft pastel animals meant for Cory and Carrie, all found, so the red-faced trooper said, scattered on the high- way. A plushy blue elephant with pink velvet ears, and a purple pony with a red saddle and golden reins--oh, that just had to be for Carrie. Then the saddest articles of all--Daddy's clothes, which had burst the confines of his suitcases when the trunk lock sprang.
I knew those suits, those shirts, ties, socks. There was the same tie I had given him on his last birthday.
"Someone will have to identify the body," said the trooper.
Now I knew positively. It was real, our father would never come home without presents for all of us--even on his own birthday.
I ran from that room! Ran from all the things spread out that tore my heart and made me ache worse than any pain I had yet experienced. I ran out of the house and into the back garden, and there I beat my fists upon an old maple tree. I beat my fists until they ached and blood began to come from the many small cuts; then I flung myself down on the grass and cried--cried ten oceans of tears, for Daddy who should be alive. I cried for us, who would have to go on living without him And the twins, they hadn't even had the chance to know how wonderful he was--or had been. And when my tears were over, and my eyes swollen and red, and hurt from the rubbing, I heard soft footsteps coming to me--my mother.
She sat down on the grass beside me and took my hand in hers. A quarter-horned moon was out, and millions of stars, and the breezes were sweet with the newborn fragrances of spring. "Cathy," she said eventually when the silence between us stretched so long it might never come to an end, "your father is up in heaven looking down on you, and you know he would want you to be brave."
"He's not dead, Momma!" I denied vehemently.
"You've been out in this yard a long time; perhaps you don't realize it's ten o'clock. Someone had to identify your father's body, and though Jim Johnston offered to do this, and spare me the pain, I had to see for myself. For, you see, I found it hard to believe too. Your father is dead, Cathy. Christopher is on his bed crying, and the twins are asleep; they don't fully realize what `dead' means."
She put her arms around me, and cradled my head down on her shoulder.
"Come," she said, standing and pulling me up with her, keeping her arm about my waist, "You've been out here much too long. I thought you were in the house with the others, and the others thought you were in your room, or with me. It's not good to be alone when you feel bereft. It's better to be with people and share your grief, and not keep it locked up inside."
She said this dry-eyed, with not a tear, but somewhere deep inside her she was crying, screaming. I could tell by her tone, by the very bleakness that had sunk deeper into her eyes.
With our father's death, a nightmare began to shadow our days. I gazed reproachfully at Momma and thought she should have prepared us in advance for something like this, for we'd never been allowed to own pets that suddenly pass away and teach us a little about losing through death. Someone, some adult, should have warned us that the young, the handsome, and the needed can die, too.
How do you say things like this to a mother who looked like fate was pulling her through a knothole and stretching her out thin and flat? Could you speak honestly to someone who didn't want to talk, or eat, or brush her hair, or put on the pretty clothes that filled her closet? Nor did she want to attend to our needs. It was a good thing the kindly neighborhood women came in and took us over, bringing with them food prepared in their own kitchens. Our house filled to overflowing with flowers, with homemade casseroles, hams, hot rolls, cakes, and pies.
They came in droves, all the people who loved, admired, and respected our father, and I was surprised he was so well known. Yet I hated it every time someone asked how he died, and what a pity someone so young should die, when so many who were useless and unfit, lived on and on, and were a burden to society.
From all that I heard, and overheard, fate was a grim reaper, never kind, with little respect for who was loved and needed.
Spring days passed on toward summer. And grief, no matter how you try to cater to its wail, has a way of fading away, and the person so real, so beloved, becomes a dim, slightly out-of- focus shadow.
One day Momma sat so sad-faced that she seemed to have forgotten how to smile. "Momma," I said brightly, in an effort to cheer her, "I'm going to pretend Daddy is still alive, and away on another of his business trips, and soon he'll come, and stride in the door, and he'll call out, just as he used to, 'Come and greet me with kisses if you love me.' And--don't you see?-- we'll feel better, all of us, like he is alive somewhere, living where we can't see him, but where we can expect him at any moment."
"No, Cathy," Momma flared, "you must accept the truth. You are not to find solace in pretending. Do you hear that! Your father is dead, and his soul has gone on to heaven, and you should understand at your age that no one ever has come back from heaven. As for us, we'll make do the best we can without him-- and that doesn't mean escaping reality by not facing up to it."
I watched her rise from her chair and begin to take things from the refrigerator to start breakfast.
"Momma .. ." I began again, feeling my way along cautiously lest she turn hard and angry again. "Will we be able to go on, without him9"
"I will do the best I can to see that we survive," she said dully, flatly.
"Will you have to go to work now, like Mrs. Johnston?"
"Maybe, maybe not. Life holds all sorts of surprises, Cathy, and some of them are unpleasant, as you are finding out. But remember always you were blessed to have for almost twelve years a father who thought you were something very special."
"Because I look like you," I said, still feeling some of that envy I always had, because I came in second after her.
She threw me a glance as she rambled through the contents of the jam-packed fridge. "I'm going to tell you something now, Cathy, that I've never told you before. You look very much as I did at your age, but you are not like me in your personality. You are much more aggressive, and much more determined. Your fath
er used to say that you were like his mother, and he loved his mother."
"Doesn't everybody love their mother?"
"No," she said with a queer expression, "there are some mothers you just can't love, for they don't want you to love them."
She took bacon and eggs from the refrigerator, then turned to take me in her arms. "Dear Cathy, you and your father had a very special close relationship, and I guess you must miss him more because of that, more than Christopher does, or the twins."
I sobbed against her shoulder. "I hate God for taking him, He should have lived to be an old man! He won't be there when I dance and when Christopher is a doctor. Nothing seems to matter now that he's gone."
"Sometimes," she began in a tight voice, "death is not as ten-i- ble as you think. Your father will never grow old, or infirm. He'll always stay young; you'll remember him that way-- young, handsome, strong. Don't cry anymore, Cathy, for as your father used to say, there is a reason for everything and a solution for every problem, and I'm trying, trying hard to do what I think best."
We were four children stumbling around in the broken pieces of our grief and loss. We would play in the back garden, trying to find solace in the sunshine, quite unaware that our lives were soon to change so drastically, so dramatically, that the words "backyard" and "garden" were to become for us synonyms for heaven--and just as remote.
It was an afternoon shortly after Daddy's funeral, and Christopher and I were with the twins in the backyard. They sat in the sandbox with small shovels and sand pails. Over and over again they transferred sand from one pail to another, gibbering back and forth in the strange language only they could understand. Cory and Carrie were fraternal rather than identical twins, yet they were like one unit, very much satisfied with each other. They built a wall about themselves so they were the castle- keeps, and full guardians of their larder of secrets. They had each other and that was enough.
The time for dinner came and went. We were afraid that now even meals might be cancelled, so even without our mother's voice to call us in, we caught hold of the dimpled, fat hands of the twins and dragged them along toward the house. We found our mother seated behind Daddy's big desk; she was writing what appeared to be a very difficult letter, if the evidence of many discarded beginnings meant anything. She frowned as she wrote in longhand, pausing every so often to lift her head and stare off into space.