We sat, post dinner, in the warm cocoon of our eat-in kitchen. My mother was smoking a cigarette, flicking tiny chips of ash into the air above her plate. I watched them fall, not disapprovingly, into the blood-juice of her finished filet. My older brother, Aubrey, had left the table now, after eating all but one of the rolls, two steaks, and most of the pecan pie. He was up in his room, a converted attic really, doing whatever a seventeen year-old does: talking to girls or smoking stolen joints or growing excessively strong, while I stayed a frozen and gangly sixth grader with no weapons to use against him. I was happy to be away from his random abuse and have my parents to myself.
My dad sat beside her, still work-dressed in a crisp oxford and tie, smoking, too, and intermittently flossing steak grizzle from his teeth with a ribbon of plastic from his box of Marlboros. My mother had reprimanded him a hundred times for this habit. “Very undignified for a doctor, hon,” she’d say. But he’d smile, and feign shock, like she had caught him stealing diamonds, and he would simply finish his dental workings. Tonight she left him alone. He had cooked the steaks on an old Weber on our brick patio, and though it was cold, he stood beside the flames, smoking and staring, looking completely content. My father seemed to enjoy these tasks, for us but away from us. Mowing the lawn, raking leaves, the grilling. He never wanted any help from my brother and me. “Go play,” he’d say smiling.
I had asked her a question a minute earlier about her side of the family, why we never saw the cousins much anymore, when they lived just across the river, and she sighed, ignored my question, and began a story.
My stomach tightened. Maybe I had heard this story. But I was only eleven and I’d heard so many slivers of so many of my parents’ stories that I wasn’t sure.
“You know, he was the most handsome man in Franklin County, your Uncle Johnny.” He had been Aunt Nancy’s first husband. She was married to Mr. Forrester now, a man we didn’t call Uncle. “Now Daddy,” she winked at my father, “Daddy’s good-looking. Oh, all the nurses lined up to talk to Dr. Landon here, but Johnny looked just like Rock Hudson, just shorter and stockier. He was the captain of the Hokie baseball team, you know. He’d tease me, when he was over at the house. Said I was prettier than Nancy and kiss my cheek.” She sucked in a drag and smiled. My mother was a real beauty, tall and thin, only her slightly crooked front teeth and a crazy-strong stigmatism that required glasses prevented her from model-perfection. She had had a ”million” boyfriends she’d told us, but left them all for my father, a quiet, diligent doctor doing his residency in her hospital. Nancy was her big sister and landing the perfect boyfriend and then a husband had been, earlier on, a family joke for both of them, a contest. But somewhere in the years their competition had turned bitter, a secret war, as my mother married a doctor and stayed married to him, and Nancy married and lost husband after husband.
“But I was only fourteen and skinny as a bean-pole and Nancy had already landed him. She was six years older and she had boobs.” She jabbed me in the knees, and I’m sure I blushed through the solar system of freckles that floated on my face. “He was just joshing with me, but I loved him for it anyway. We all loved him.” She looked at my dad who had put his wrapper down and dropped his shoulders a little.
“Well, they had been married a few years. Tat and Jeremy were two and three, maybe?” My dad nodded his head, yes. These were my cousins, a few years older than me. I only saw them on official holidays. They would smoke with Aubrey in the woods behind our house while I spied on them jealously from behind a distant tree. “And the baseball thing hadn’t worked out. He had hurt his ankle in the minors?” Again, she looked at my father. This was how they told stories. She was the voice, controlled the emotion, the tenor, and he was the fact checker, the nodder, who shook his head to the truth or wrinkled his face benignly at an error.
“Meniscus” my father said to the burnt skin of his baked potato. “Torn meniscus.”
“That’s right. Anyway, he was selling insurance in Christiansburg, doing alright. Still was a peach and a cutie. God, they were happy. And then he had to fly to Raleigh and back, for a meeting.” My stomach tightened. Maybe I had heard this story. But I was only eleven and I’d heard so many slivers of so many of my parents’ stories that I wasn’t sure.
My mother’s breathing began to slow, and she pulled away from my gaze and folded her paper napkin into a haphazard fan.
“So he was flying back, a few days before Christmas through a blizzard. I mean it was nothing in Raleigh, flurries, they said, but then as they approached the Blue Ridge mountains, it got bad.” Her voice lowered on this last word like she was whispering some evil secret.
I did know the story and I should have run. Run to my room, to my homework and Encyclopedia Browns, to my tiny black and white television, and Hill Street Blues. But I was caught. I sensed magic and horror here, and I was stuck in the middle of it like the filling of some sloppy smushed sandwich. I had to hear the whole thing again to make sure; maybe I could make my own sense of it.
“It crashed, the plane, at the top of the mountain. Everyone in town had heard and was waiting for the details.” I was caught in my seat watching her cheek tremble. She finally pulled in a deep breath and looked at me again, her voice softer. My mom was a happy woman, mostly, knew how to drink and not drink, she loved her kids and my father, she could work hard (she had been a nurse for years) or be lazy, with no guilt. But at times, she could be sucked into a sadness, into a hot, messy moment. There were no warnings for her movement into the dark. She’d tell a story or pause to remember something, and she would be done for an hour or a month. Eventually she would come back to us, like whatever dark thing that pulled her under had never existed. This was one of those times; her eyes looked black and frozen. She was somewhere else.
“Well, here’s the kicker.” She said it flatly and her body sagged, the posture she was so proud of left her. “There was one survivor. On the mountain in the dark in that damn blizzard, somebody was alive. We found out later that as the plane hit the mountain, the tail broke off … and … he was sucked out, still strapped in his seat and tossed into the snow.” My mom squeezed my knee lightly, not like my brother who, in nearly every car trip we took, would grind his pinching thumbs and forefingers so deep into the flesh beside my knee cap that I’d clench my teeth from the pain. For a moment, for some stupid reason, I wanted him here, Aubrey, hearing this. Would he ask his insane questions, demanding the gore he knew my medical parents could deliver? Would he see the terror in my face and push me further into it? Maybe he’d hover close, like he had done years before, on nights when I wet the bed, and he would pull me into his dry one and whisper softly, “I did it, too,” and fall back to sleep without cursing me.
But it was just us and I was stuck, watching her lips, waiting and hoping for the words to fall out in the right way.
“So we, Aunt Nancy, her boys, Daddy and me, I think it was Rush and Fran from across the street, we sat in front of the TV and waited. They hadn’t released the survivor’s name. The airplane folks, once they got everybody off the mountain, would tell us. Nancy just sat there and over and over said, ‘It’s Johnny. I know it’s Johnny.’”
At this point, my dad sighed heavily and looked up at the light fixture. It seemed to be shaking. From the ceiling above, we could all hear a heavy bass line from one of Aubrey’s records, Van Halen, I guessed. Normally, my father would have unfolded himself from his chair and yelled up the stairs, but he was tired (and caught in the story, it seemed, too) and turned away from us. My mom must have known and stroked his shoulder.
“And we prayed that it was him, but it was a sickly prayer, you know, a back room kind of a prayer, because there were kids and wives and everybody on that plane. And we were praying for them to be gone and Johnny to be okay.”
And right then I said a little prayer too. Let it be him. My movie star-looking, baseball-playing uncle. I needed him.
“And I guess everybody was doing the same thing. Thought it was their boy or girl. Or husband of wife. Still strapped in, legs broken, almost frozen to death, but alive somehow.”
“But …” and she looked at him and paused. I hated this part and I hated her many years later for telling it the way she did, almost like she, my lovely mother, wanted me to bear some of the goddamn pain of it.
“It wasn’t. It was Sherman Heffler. Married. He had four children. It was him that made it.”
She stopped talking and my thoughts drifted to that craggy mountain, Mr. Heffler sitting wide awake in a bank of snow, his eyes watching – not the tangled mess of plane wreckage less than a hundred yards away – but the lights from the train of ambulances slowly creeping up the mountain. The dead, I couldn’t imagine. My eleven year-old brain wouldn’t let me get to the darkness of that. But I found a few seconds of comfort knowing that Mr. Heffler was okay.
“That night and into the morning … not good. Aunt Nancy was – well, what you’d expect? A zombie, crying, and then she wouldn’t speak. And she couldn’t identify him, she wouldn’t go. Maybe she didn’t even understand what we were asking her to do. They collected the bodies and made a makeshift morgue in one of the empty hangers. It was still so cold that it was like a real freezer.”
My father still wouldn’t look at us, but I thought I heard a hard swallow of emotion escape his lips. I remembered now, hearing him talk of my uncle, the golf games, the drinking marathons and the cocktail shrimp. My father would never eat shrimp now because he and Johnny had eaten too much at a party together and both had thrown up in our backyard, laughing and holding their stomachs apparently as they vomited into my mother’s begonias. My father loved to talk to anyone, cashiers, gas pumpers, politicians, but he didn’t have close friends now. I wondered if this was why.
“Daddy had to identify Johnny. I got as far as the entrance with him, but I couldn’t go in. All those sheets, lined up. Some folded into much smaller squares. Not much left I guess.”
Those sheets would haunt me for a while, me trying in my daydreams to lift up the slick cotton and see what was underneath. I never could grab the corner of cloth I reached for.
“I went back to the car and cried like a damn coward, but you went in.” She was talking to him now. And now that I think back on it, maybe this story was for him, for them together. To process it, to grieve again. Maybe for her to acknowledge what he had lost, too.
“Most of the bodies were tagged. People had come before us. But your father looked through the rest, back and forth. He’d seen corpses before but this was different, looking for family, your best friend. Finally, Daddy found him, not by his face. He was unrecognizable.”
“His hands.” My father had finally said something. “By his hands.”
My mom finished what he could not. “Johnny had the biggest hands, the strongest hands you’d ever seen. All those years playing ball. It was his hands Daddy finally saw.” I had never heard or seen my father cry. In that tiny eat-in kitchen, he again turned away from us, and I looked down at my feet.
“So …” she was ready to be done and a shadow of wicked relief passed across her face, “we buried him a week later. It was a cold month of funerals.”
My mother stood from her chair and began collecting the dishes. My father lit another cigarette and turned back into the circle of the table, his face was red, his eyes watery. He finally looked at me. “Time for homework, I guess.” He would check over my math later, gently pointing out my errors, claiming with a laugh he wasn’t any good with math either. I knew that wasn’t true.
“Okay.” I wanted to hug him then, smell the smoke and English Leather that rose from his shirt, rub my chin into the razor-y whiskers on his cheek. And her, too. Standing there in silence, rinsing the plates. But I left them and walked up the stairs, left them to the memories, the giant hands of a man they loved, the little agonies, the ones they had pushed through together.
As I reached the top step, the story still hovered around me. I suppose Aubrey sensed my dazed weakness from inside his room and opened his door, on his face a twinkle of pleasure. “Whatcha doing, dipshit?”
He stepped closer, the music spilling from his room hiding his heavy steps, and looked down the stairs for my parents, hoping he was free to attack without interference, but he stopped. “What’s wrong?”
“Did they ever tell you the story of Uncle Johnny?”
He grimaced like someone had sucker-punched him on a full stomach and shook his head. “I hate that story.” And in his eyes, I could see the glimmer of something human, maybe sadness, maybe fear. I wasn’t sure. But he turned from me without saying a word, no swing, no poke, and walked backed to his room and shut the door.
Illustration by Seth Casana