Will and I push our bikes along the narrow alley between the house and the fence of the house next door. We’re dripping wet from a three-mile run we’ve just made in Asbury Park. The run is every Thursday evening at seven on the boardwalk and conducted by the local YMCA. We’ve ridden the mile or so from there back home. The air is soft and soothing.
Rosemary, my wife, is already home. She’d driven back. We’ve invited good friends who run with us to eat at our house. She’s come home to set the table and put things out. Albie and Linda, with whom we run on Monday and Thursday evenings, are stopping to get the pizza. Bobbie, another friend who is joining us, is with them. Will, our younger son, and I have enjoyed riding slowly through the darkening evening and look forward to showers and good pizza with friends.
As I push my bike past the dining-room window, I just catch the movement of Rosemary coming back through the kitchen. I park my bike near the trash cans. Will parks his along the fence leaning over the marigolds we’ve planted. He rushes in past Rosemary to get his shower started so I can have mine after him. I figure I’ll help with anything Rosemary needs.
She pauses on the little covered back porch, on the platform outside the kitchen door. I’m just stepping over the little sill into the porch when she comes quickly down the steps to me. It’s enough out of the ordinary that I take notice. I see she’s crying.
She comes into my arms. I hold her tight. She’s sobbing so hard I can feel it through her whole body and mine. I think, what in heaven’s name can be wrong, Rosemary is not an easy crier. I’m just beginning to think about all our loved ones, mostly the few older aunts and uncles who are left. Then she looks up, takes my head in both her hands, stares into my eyes. I can scarcely make her out in the dark.
‘Bert, darling, a terrible thing has happened.’
She stops to take a deep stuttering breath.
‘They’re all dead. Bill, Kate, Mia, Dayiel. They’re all dead. I just finished talking to Betty Rodewald. They were killed in a huge crash and fire on the highway in Oregon. They’re dead.’
She leans her head into my sweaty shoulder and cries hard some more. I hold on to her, as much to keep myself up as anything. I’m surprised at my reaction. I don’t believe it. Somebody’s made a mistake. I can’t accept it. All the usual reactions people have to things they don’t want to believe. But I’m not crying. I’ve just started shaking my head against Rosemary’s.
‘When did it happen? How? Are you sure?’
She talks into my shoulder. ‘It happened yesterday at about four o’clock Oregon time. There was a fire that blew across the road. Seven people were killed. About thirty cars piled up. Betty was crying so hard it was hard to understand. I still don’t understand.’ Betty Rodewald is my daughter’s mother-in-law.
‘It happened yesterday? Are you sure? What took so long? What kind of people won’t even tell you right away when something like this happens?’
‘I wish it weren’t true. They’re dead.’
I hold her tighter. I’m beginning to shiver. I feel cold all the way inside myself. How could this happen? These are the kinds of things that happen to other people. We’ve always been so lucky. Bill, Kate’s husband, is such a careful driver; Kate, even more so. She won’t go around the block in a car with the babies unless they’re strapped into baby seats, like astronauts, with wide straps crossed over them.
I turn Rosemary and lead her back up the steps into the kitchen. She’s slumped against me. I’m still not crying. It hasn’t registered yet. I hear the Jeep pulling in, parking out front. I lead Rosemary into the living room, ease her into the reclining chair where she likes to read in the evenings.
Our friends are standing on our front porch. I open the door. They’re wearing jackets against the chill after the run. Albie is holding the grease-stained paper box with the pizza out with two hands. He’s smiling, the women are behind him. They know right away something has happened; something is wrong.
‘We’ve just had some terrible news.’
For the first time I feel I might break down, crying. Telling it to someone else will make it more real, irrevocable.
‘Kate, Bill, Mia and Dayiel have been killed in some kind of monstrous automobile accident in Oregon. Rosemary just phoned and talked to Bill’s mom. It happened yesterday afternoon.’
Albie puts the pizza down on the table by the window.
‘And they’re only telling you now?’
It’s the same reaction I had. Rosemary begins talking behind me. I know her. She doesn’t want anyone thought badly of when they haven’t done anything wrong.
‘They didn’t know themselves until just about an hour ago. It’s only afternoon there. The accident was so horrible they couldn’t identify the bodies for a long time. The Rodewalds were expecting them home for dinner last night. They didn’t come. They thought the car had broken down or they’d decided to stay over with friends. The accident was on all the news, television, everything, all over the country, but they didn’t think this kind of thing could happen to the family.’
She stops, leans forward with her face in her hands. Linda goes over, gets down on her knees, holds on to Rosemary. I’d better get off my feet or I’m going to fall down. I slump on to the floor with my head against the side of the couch, the way I watch baseball on television. Bobbie pulls some pillows off the couch and tucks them under my head. Both Linda and Bobbie are crying now. Each have children of their own.
Albie pulls my legs out straight, goes into the dining room and brings out a chair. He lifts my legs up on to the chair; Bobbie puts another pillow under my legs. I guess from their reactions I must be going into shock. I know I feel terrible. I can’t stop shaking my head back and forth, like a pendulum. It’s totally involuntary.
Linda takes the pizza into the kitchen. She comes back with wet towels for both Rosemary and me. I’m beginning to feel as if things are passing me by. I want to comfort Rosemary but I’m numb. Albie is on his knees beside me now.
‘Do you want me to get the first aid people? I can call them and they’ll be here in five minutes.’
I shake my head no. It interrupts my regular rhythm of head shaking.
‘No. I think we should just be alone for a while. I still have to tell Will. He doesn’t know yet. We’ll be all right. You people go home to your families.’
Rosemary sits up in her chair, ready to play hostess.
‘Yes, please go home. We’ll have many things to do. Nobody can do anything for us right now. If we do need help, we’ll call.’
Bobbie leans towards Rosemary.
‘I know I won’t sleep tonight, so call any time, and I’ll be right over. Dave can help, too. You know lifeguards are trained in first aid. You don’t need to take this all alone.’
Linda and Albie are standing. It’s uncomfortable knowing they want to help, but all of us know there’s nothing they can do. We just have to work it out ourselves.