Wishful Thinking

Sam and Bob headed home with a tired, good-day's-work feeling. It had snowed earlier, and freezing rain coated the roads with a sheet of ice. Skidding and fish-tailing through a stop sign and red light, Sam hit a camouflaged pot hole dead center. He heard his right fender jar loose with a thump.

"Shoot," he mumbled.

"Well, Sam," Bob said. "Your old car has about had it, don't you think? You're gonna have to get a new one pretty soon."

"What? Old Blue? Why, she could take you home without me drivin'. She never misses a day, and she'd beat any foreign piece of shit you drive."

Bob knew better than to push it any further. Sam had an attachment to that car as if they had grown up together. He'd put thousands of miles on Old Blue without any trouble and had no intentions of trading her in for some car with no sense of loyalty.

He tried to drive more carefully, slowing down just a little and pumping the brake instead of stomping it. He was thinking more of Old Blue's safety than of his own or his passenger's because Old Blue had to be driven with care. It had been through a lot--the frame was rusted, and chunks of it fell off with each car wash. Sam's daughter had sprayed the interior with cheap perfume that had settled into the upholstery. And the body was repainted a beaming blue that gave the car notoriety throughout Hebron.

As they turned onto Bob's street, Bob gathered up his tool box and thermos. "Well, Sam, I thank you for the ride. It's been a pleasure, and maybe tomorrow the weather will be more obliging."

Sam stopped in front of a small square house, similar to those around it. Bob stepped out of Old blue and said "good-bye" to Sam.

"Yeah, good-bye."

"Well, Old Blue," Sam said as he fish-tailed away from Bob's house. "I guess as long as you're mine and you get me where I need to go, I don't have to stick up for you. You maybe look a little beat up on the outside, but you got the best engine in this whole derned country. And that's good enough for me."

Sam pulled onto the highway that led to his town. Squinting through the slush that speeding trucks tossed onto his windshield, he wished he lived someplace where it never snowed. He remembered a stone house he and his wife once had in Tennessee. It was in the hills of Sequatchie Valley where the Women's Missionary Fellowship of the Baptist church had quilting circles, and all the men fished on Saturdays from just before dawn until noon.

"Sure, they had snow in Tennessee," he mumbled to himself, "but never like this. I could fish pretty much anytime I wanted, except when it got too cold. It did get cold down there, but it didn't snow, not like this. Nope, not like this." His voice trailed off as he held both hands on the wheel to keep his car from skidding.

It had begun to snow again--big flakes that hit like raindrops. Sam passed the sign that read "Hebron, 3 Miles." He eased into the right-hand lane to make the exit just ahead. He passed the sign reading "Hebron, This Exit," and when he saw the exit ramp and flipped on his turn signal out of habit, he passed the ramp, too.

"Oh, shoot," he said patting Old Blue's steering wheel. "I missed my turn-off all because I was thinkin' about fishin' in Tennessee. You know, though, there's a fishin' hole not too far from here. Could be that it's just off that crumbling road past that bridge up there."

As he drove under the bridge, Sam eased the wheel to the right onto the next exit ramp, and with one more turn, he put Old Blue on a rough and curving gravel road. They bounced from bump to rut and back to bump, slowly making their way to Sam's remembered fishing hole.

Sam steered the wheel with the control of a master driver, making every slight curve and sharp twist in the seldom-traveled road. He found where the pond should have been, but blowing snow and growing drifts kept him from seeing clearly.

He thought better of staying on that deserted road and turned back toward the highway. The Mrs. would have last night's leftovers warming in the oven with some corn bread, so he had to stop day-dreaming and head home.

Once he entered the highway, he thought again about Tennessee. He saw himself standing on the grassy bank of a smooth and quiet pond. A few trees grew behind him, and more shaded the banks of the other side. He had his strongest pole and line anticipating a struggle with some 12-pound wiggling trout. Chirping crickets and chunks of cheddar cheese were his bait, and a can of worms lay nearby in case the fish weren't biting for his regular bait.

Securing a piece of the cheese on his hook, Sam held his pole out to the side and flicked it toward the middle of the pond. The line hummed as it grew, and the red and white bobber hit with a plop, rippling the water's surface all the way back to Sam's rubber boots.

Cast after cast, cheese after cricket, Sam reeled in shining trout. With each catch he ran the stringer through the fish's gills and tied it to a dangling branch, letting it flop and splash in the water as a warning to the other fish.

As Sam drove down his street, he grinned, steering Old Blue into his driveway. He picked up his lunchbox in one hand, and kept the other behind his back as he walked through the back door and into the kitchen. He greeted his wife with a kiss on the cheek and a pat on the bottom, and she giggled softly and told him that dinner was warming in the oven. She'd made a fresh pan of corn bread to go with the leftovers.

"What you got in your hand there?" she furrowed her brow as she wiped her hands on her apron. Sam brought his hidden hand out in plain sight, and in it he held a stringer full of fish. "Where in God's name did you get those in the middle of winter, in the middle of this snow storm?" She cautiously took the fish and put them in the sink, watching Sam as he walked toward the bathroom to clean up for dinner.

Old blue sat resting in the driveway, popping as her over-worked engine cooled with the wind and snow. She wished she could see the Mrs.' face, but she would wait for Sam to tell her all about it in the morning.

A Full Bowl

I wrapped my wet hair in the big green towel and twirled it up into a spiral turban. I pulled the shower curtain closed as I walked passed the tub on the way to the door. That’s when I saw it, a brown spider the size of Nebraska just above the doorframe. Maybe Nebraska is overstating its actual size, but this was certainly larger than the average house spider. I jumped back, and the spider skittered to the right, then to the left, then down to the top of the door.

I had done this dance before. Something about the bathroom drew spiders and centipedes up from the basement, either to explore the walls and mirrors or to throw a shindig in the tub. I leaned forward and yanked the door open to let the spider drop a few inches with the removal of its resting place. The thing swayed from its instant strand of web until it could wrap its legs around the tether and climb back up to solid ground. I waited until the spider was back up on the wall before jumping from my spot on the rug out into the hallway. I brushed off my shoulders, shivering involuntarily from the top of my head down to my feet, jumping in place like Red Skelton.

“Hey, Rob, come in here for a minute,” I heard Mama’s thin, pinched voice coming from the family room. It wasn’t actually a family room. It was a bedroom that had been converted into a family room after my sisters had moved out. Not even that, really. It was called the “TV room” because it held a couch, two chairs, the sewing machine, and the console TV. The only thing the family ever did in that room was watch prime time night after night.

“What,” I said as I stuck my head in the door.

“Don’t say ‘what’ to me like I’m some stranger. Talk to me with a little respect.”

Here we go, I thought. “‘What did you want,’ I meant.”

“I want to know why you need to take twenty-minute showers and run up the water bill every night.”

“I didn’t take a twenty minute shower. I wasn’t even in the bathroom for twenty minutes. The water couldn’t have been running for more than ten.”

“We timed you,” she said, as if my father were a partner in setting the trap.

Daddy sat silently in his chair, eyes aimed directly ahead at a rerun of Dallas. Playbacks, he called them.

“You timed me taking a shower?” I could feel my neck become tense and hid my hands outside in the hall so I could turn them into fists undetected. “Well, I timed myself. It was 9:20 when I went in to take a shower, and now it’s 9:37. I’ve been dodging a spider for the last five minutes, so there is no way I could have had the water running for a full twenty minutes.” I couldn’t believe I was reduced to having to defend myself in this situation. Archie Bunker wouldn’t have even had this conversation. Well, maybe he would have tried, but the audience would have been there to laugh at his absurdity, and Gloria would have triumphed. If I just had somebody to witness this, a studio audience, I’d be able to breath steadier, and I wouldn’t have to stand here with my hands clinched, I thought.

With a sigh, I said, “Tomorrow I’ll make sure my shower is only ten minutes, but you’ll have to help me. Maybe you can set the timer over the stove.”

“Don’t get smart with me. I know what I know.”

Daddy chuckled as he watched J. R. swindle another would-be partner out of his fortune and his wife. He mumbled something about that old J. R. being a low-down skunk as he smoothed the top of his hairless head and worked on a wad of Skoal.


She timed my shower, I repeated in my head as I backed away from the door and hurried into my room as if it were home base, and I would be safe if I could just get inside. Can’t tag me in here. I closed the door and unwrapped the damp towel from around my head. Leaning on my dresser with my arms straightened on both sides, I pressed toward the mirror and stared at my reflection, reviewing the familiar brown hair and dark brown eyes of an average looking adolescent girl. I leaned closer to look for a mark on my lip left by my mouthpiece—I hadn’t played my horn since the day before, but my mother often told me that I had a permanent mouthpiece ring from playing too much. I couldn’t see one, but then I always tried hard not to see the things Mama was so quick to point out. I didn’t want to believe that I had so many flaws—bad skin, bad teeth, stringy hair, sloppy jeans—and a mouthpiece ring.

I won’t always live here, I told myself. I’ll graduate in May, and I’m going to the Purdue branch next year, but as soon as I can, I’m leaving for college with a campus, and just like all of my sisters, I’ll only come back for Christmas. I had three sisters, each much older than I, and as they each left for college, I became increasingly unsettled about being the only one left at home, the only one left to have my showers timed and my cat thrown down the basement stairs and my music criticized.

“Music without words doesn’t mean anything,” Daddy said when I played my Chopin album on the console stereo.

Winston, my Himalayan cat who would rather pee in the living room than in his litter box that was kept in my room, stretched and rolled on my bedspread. Winston was the one in the family who I could go to when I needed a shoulder or just a place to rest my head. I had written a Christmas poem about him when he was a kitten.

Little baby Winston, how sweet you used to be.
Oh to see you fast asleep beneath the Christmas tree.
Ripping up the curtains, marking up the walls,
Playing little kitten games and chasing foil balls.
But oh the day you faulted and went behind the chair.
You gave our house that awful smell, too much for us to bear.
Some threatened you with beatings, others used starvation,
I just sat and looked at you with worry and frustration.
Little baby Winston, how sweet you used to be.
Oh to see you fast asleep, as long as you’re with me.

I stretched out next to him, looked him in the eyes, and recited the verses. “I wish I were a cat,” I told him. “I wish I could sleep in the window and play with foil and eat from a bowl that was always full.” Winston rubbed his head against my arm, and I wondered if the sound and pattern of my voice was to him what the rhythm of his purring was to me, a sound that provided a steady background and a reward for attention. He interrupted the rumbling of his purring by licking the top of his front paws and straightening a misaligned patch of fur on his side.

I remembered that when I was younger, maybe ten or eleven, I discovered a little plug of wood in the front of my dresser that I could pull out with a straight pin. It was the size of a small dowel rod and about one inch long. I had made a miniature scroll out of my mother’s adding machine tape, and on it I wrote, “August 1980.” It represented the year I hoped I would be moving out of the house for college, away from my parents and their pinched up voices and their pinched up approach to living that seemed to be patterned after network programming. I rolled the paper into a tube the size of the plughole and kept it hidden behind the piece of wood. I would pull it out and look at it whenever I needed a little sign of hope, but I had forgotten about it until now.

After digging around in my top drawer for a straight pin, I finally found one and stuck it into the wood plug to pull it out, revealing the small roll of hopeful paper behind it. Wow, I thought, it’s been at least a year since I’ve even thought about this thing. I pulled it out and slowly unrolled it. Running my fingers over the pencil-lead handwriting of a middle school girl caught up in a moment of melodrama and sadness, I sighed. August 1980 was not going to provide an escape route, but maybe August 1981 would be the month of liberation. I rolled the paper back up and carefully stowed it back into its hiding place, a miniature time capsule.

The phone rang, a welcomed distraction, and I ran down the hall to answer it. Our only telephone was a rotary model that was mounted on the wall in the dining room.

“Hello.”

“Hi Robyn. It’s Karen.” Karen MacCauley was my closest friend, and one or the other of us called about the same time almost every evening. We met in marching band when our director, Mr. Hattendorf had agreed to let us play the cymbals. Karen played the viola in the orchestra, and I was a failed trumpet student. Our first day on the field was the start of our friendship, and we had been together ever since. I had decided that our relationship was more important to me than to her because she had a gaggle of friends, all of them honor students, excellent musicians, and gregarious. My grades were average, I clanged the cymbals in the band, and I was quiet and often alone, with the exception of a few rag-tag friends here and there.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I just got out of the shower, and I was thinking about going to bed early.” I thought about telling her what my parents had said about the length of time I had supposedly spent in the shower and how I had found the rolled up piece of paper I had hidden when I was a child, but I was embarrassed. Karen seemed to come from such a well-adjusted family. I didn’t think she would understand. “What are you doing?” I asked without revealing the evening’s events.

“Nothing. Just thought I’d call and say ‘hi.’ I didn’t get to talk to you today at school. Did you do your accounting homework?”

“No,” I responded with disgust. “I’m not going to do that stuff until Sunday night. Isn’t it due Monday morning?”

“Monday or Tuesday. You know how Mr. Lohse is. You never really get a solid answer when you ask a question.”

“I know. ‘Mr. Lohse, how many days do we have until the test?’ ‘Oh, six or ten.’ What kind of answer is ‘six or ten?’ Why isn’t it six or seven or nine or ten? Nobody says ‘six or ten.’”

“What are you doing tomorrow?”

“Nothing,” I answered, thinking about how much I hated Saturdays at my house. “I’ll probably just hang around the house and play the piano or something. What are you doing?”

“Sean and I are going to see a movie in Michigan City. Chrissy might go with us.”

“That sounds like fun.”

“Robyn, that’s long enough to be on the phone,” I heard my mother yell from the TV room as Daddy spit out a wad of tobacco and its juice and shot it into his peach can with a phlegmy hack.

With a cringe, I had to say, “I gotta go. Have fun tomorrow. See you Monday.”


Saturday morning after I made my bed and added my dirty clothes to the laundry piles, Daddy asked for some help. “Hey Rob. Get in here and help me move this air conditioner. I want to put it in the bedroom window.”

“No you don’t,” Mama protested. “You can’t work that girl like she’s a man. You wait until Mel and Joe come next weekend and get Joe to help you do that.” Melanie was my sister. She had married an Italian named Joe who said once that he didn’t know he was Italian until he married into our family, with a father who carried with him all of the slanderous racial slurs he picked up as a soldier in World War II.

Sometimes Mama exercised an exact authority over Daddy like Margaret Houlihan over Frank Burns, and she spoke with the same shrill voice that Houlihan used when she caught Frank rifling through her lingerie. But sometimes Mama was more like Ellie Ewing, and spoke with a quiet and determined tone to Daddy as if he were Jacque and he had just undercut one of his children in an oil deal. Today, she was Hot Lips, and she was not about to let me haul a huge window air conditioner from the garage to the back of the house.

Last summer, while Mama was at work and Daddy was between jobs as a carpenter, Daddy decided to change couches in the TV room. The one in the room was old and worn, and the one he wanted was in the garage. Both were too long to go through doors, down the narrow hall, and around tight corners, but Daddy had an idea—he strapped on his tool belt, complete with hammers, ten-penny nails, and a crowbar. He banged and pried and pulled. He spit and swore and perspired. Within half an hour, he had removed the entire window from what used to be my bedroom, frame and all. With the whole thing spread out in the front yard, he called me in to help pull out the sagging sofa. We got it halfway through the window, and while Daddy held on to one end, I ran out through the front door and helped to balance the couch on the window opening. After a good deal of maneuvering, we pulled and pushed it through the hole in the side of the house and carried it out to the garage. Then with the new used couch with wooden sides and gold plaid upholstery, we reversed actions, pulling and pushing it through the wall and into the TV room. I was relieved that the neighbors had steady jobs and were all at work at that hour of the day.

“Now get the heck out of the way while I put this window back in before your mama comes home from work,” Daddy said, out of breath from the hard work and from the tension caused by possibly being caught making me “work like a man.” I knew to keep my mouth shut, and when Mama came home and asked what I had done all day, I would say, “Not much.”

I was willing to carry one side of the air conditioner, a little proud that Daddy would ask for my help as if he was sure I was able to carry my end of the load, but I stayed out of the way and wasted another Saturday. That night, I was careful to take a very short shower and to point out that it was short before I went to bed.

Sunday morning was spent rushing around getting ready for church, where I would sit quietly and fantasize about something or other. Sometimes I imagined myself as a cast member of Fame, and I could play the piano like the sulky guy with curly, black hair. I would initiate a spontaneous break out of dancing and singing in the cafeteria while I performed my flawless swing number. Sometimes I dreamed I was riding a horse from Chesterton, Indiana down I-65 all the way to Decatur, Alabama to visit my Grandfather. It was an odd fantasy, and even more odd when you considered I’d never ridden a horse in my life. Finally, the pastor would pray his benediction, and I would snap back to reality, and think about lunch.

Mama was stirring the beans with bacon and Daddy was setting the table when the phone rang. I ran to get it, saying “hello” and hoping it would be an invitation to go somewhere or do something that afternoon. Or at least it would be Karen telling me about the movie she had seen with Sean.

Instead, it was Jackie Gondeck, a clarinet player I knew from band who had graduated the year before. I hadn’t talked to her in a couple of weeks.

“Hi, Jackie. What’s up?”

Jackie spoke, and suddenly, all of my dreams, my fantasies, my dissatisfaction with my adolescent stage of life, disappeared. I couldn’t remember what I had been doing before the phone rang, and I couldn’t see beyond the rotary dial.

I hung up the phone and stared blankly into the kitchen where my parents stood, wondering why I was mute. Finally, I pushed the words out, “Karen is dead.”

“What,” Mama said with intensity.

I thought for a split second that she might think I meant my sister Karen, so I quickly said, “Karen MacCauley. She’s dead.” I had always made a point of not letting my mother see me cry, not to let her see that she could effect me, but I could feel tears escape the corners of my eyes, and I didn’t try to pull them back.

I ran outside the screen door and squeezed between the evergreens where Winston was crouched, waiting for a running squirrel. I grabbed my cat and held on as tight as I could, like he was a life jacket, and without him I would sink to the bottom. Mama ran out the door after me and stood on the front porch, trying to hold onto me and console me, but all I wanted was Winston. I was accustomed to his mammal comfort, and holding him was all I knew to do. Mama pulled me into the house, both of us crying, and she sat me down on the couch. As Daddy watched helpless, I told her what Jackie had said. Karen, her sometimes boyfriend Sean, and our friend Chrissy Forchetti were on their way home from Michigan City, only about twenty minutes from Chesterton, when something happened to the car—a blown out tire or a rough spot in the road. The car rolled several times, and Karen, not wearing a seat belt, went through the open sunroof and died immediately of severe head injuries. Sean and Chrissy where thrown around the car but survived.

My friend, sometimes my only friend, I thought. We were going to talk at school tomorrow. We were going to sit by each other in accounting. We were going to meet at her locker that she let me share because mine was out of the way. We were going to pass notes to each other in the hall. We were going to wonder if either one of us would be invited to the prom next month. And we were going to remain friends beyond our youthful bond of marching band and orchestra and accounting and the people we knew.

I called Sean because I couldn’t believe it was true. He would reveal that it was a dream, like Bobby Ewing’s season-long absence, and I would find Karen at her locker on Monday, like Pam found Bobby in the shower. Someone else answered the phone, one of the boys from the percussion section, and he told me what I didn’t want to hear. Sean was resting and didn’t want to talk to anyone, but everyone would be going to his house later that night to be together. No one knew what to think or do on their own, but we all hoped just being in the same room together would help draw out clear thoughts and some kind of understanding. I would lay on my bed with Winston stretched out beside me until that time when I could see Sean’s face and know what happened last night.

Sean was sunken into a big chair like he was part of the fabric. He, and everyone around him, was watching All in the Family, an episode after Edith had died and Archie was left with the foster girl and they spent most of their time in the bar down the street. At least a dozen of us were squeezed into Sean’s family room, and although we were not given answers to the death of our friend, we were at least given a corporate comfort to this surreal situation. He had been driving the car when it flipped and rolled, but he didn’t have answers, not for us, for his parents, or for Karen’s parents. He couldn’t say why he lost control. He couldn’t say if a tire had blown out. And no one would ask out loud if he had been drinking. Karen and Chrissy didn’t drink or use drugs, so if Sean had been under some outside influence, he would have drunk or smoked or snorted before he picked them up.

___


On Monday morning, I woke up at the usual time, got dressed, ate my Pop Tart, grabbed my books and my horn and waited on the couch for my ride to school. It seemed distant, the death of Karen, like it hadn’t happened, or like it happened so long ago. Mama and Daddy watched to make sure I would be OK. They offered to let me stay home for the day, but we all knew it would be best for me to be at school with distractions and other friends.

I made it through my first class, sitting as still and as unresponsive as I knew to be. I knew that if I felt anything at all, I wouldn’t be able to stop crying, and the impending feeling of being lost and not knowing which direction to head for home would be too much to sort through in school hallways. During the next class, a study hall, I worked at memorizing Puck’s final appeal from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the only book I had with me, not wanting to go to the locker I had shared with Karen. The kids in the carousels next to mine speculated on the cause of the accident. They didn’t know about my ties to Karen, so their discussion seemed heartless and insensitive. They wondered if Sean was high.

“If we shadows have offended,
Think but this and all is mended.”

They wondered and actually asked out loud if Karen had been decapitated.

“That you have slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding than a dream.”

They talked about how Chrissy had been thrown around but was only bruised and how lucky she and Sean were to be alive.

“Gentles, do not reprehend:
If you pardon, we will mend.”

The discussion was more than I could stand to listen to, as they batted around cold facts as if they were talking about an episode of CHIPS. I grabbed my book and folders and ran out the door, down the hall, down the stairs, around the corner to the drinking fountain across from the bandroom. I had spent hours in that room, a sanctuary where I could read, talk to friends, play the piano in one of the practice rooms. Like my bedroom at home, it was home base, and I wanted to run inside and not be tagged.

I pushed open the double doors and stood on the landing, leaning on the rail and looking down into the empty room full of chairs and music stands. Everything was new and clean, unlike the bandroom at the other end of the school, the one the orchestra used, with its old green walls and green tiled floors. I began to cry as hard as I had the day before with my cat and my mother, and I held onto the rail trying to breath and trying not to draw attention from the music secretary in the office. I heard the doors open, and as I turned to see who was coming through them, Mr. Hattendorf walked in. He saw me standing there, saw me crying and alone and needing help, but he would not offer comfort. He quickly walked past me and into the office.

At that moment, I was embarrassed for choosing this room to hide in and for making eye contact with this teacher who didn’t want to be needed that day. I quietly opened the doors, slipped through, and headed for my next class.

So the day went, with me and with Karen’s other friends wandering from room to room in the school looking for a place, a safe room or a quiet room or a room that didn’t remind us of our missing friend. For our final class, we gathered in the old green band room for wind ensemble, sitting in our chairs with our instruments in our laps, and looking at Mr. Hattendorf as we waited for instructions.

___


Mr. Hattendorf was a young band teacher who looked intelligent by adolescent standards. He wore suits and had a go-tee. He used unusual words like “behoove,” and gave vocabulary tips with different compositions. “It would behoove you to watch me as I direct you through this difficult section of Saint Saens. It would also behoove you to learn the meaning of ‘behoove’ and use the word as opportunities arise.”

On this afternoon, when we were stunned and quiet and hoping that our teacher who had always commanded such respect would provide some kind of answer to all of our unspoken questions, Mr. Hattendorf offered no answers.

“We are all very sad today, and we are all feeling a little lost. I don’t know what to say to you to help you through this, but I hope you’ll talk to your parents and your clergymen and to each other.”

He cleared his throat and wiped his eyes that had begun to glisten. “Karen’s parents have asked that the orchestra perform at her funeral, which will be held on Wednesday, and they have asked that boys from the marching band, six of you, be the pall bearers. See me after band to volunteer. For those of you in the orchestra, we will play the piece we have been working on for regional contest. We will not meet to rehearse it before Wednesday, so make sure you look it over at home and be ready.”

I could never remember the name of the piece we were getting ready for contest, but the melody was haunting. After school, when I would walk the mile to my house, I would sometimes pick a rock near the gym and kick it all the way home, humming that song out loud with every step and with every launch of the rock. It was the kind of tune that would drift into your head and stay there, making you hum almost involuntarily until you could replace it with a less haunting melody. This piece, whatever it was called, had a horn part that seemed remote enough, until the third part, my part, reached an eight-count high D, with nothing but the violins playing underneath. I would hold the D, move up to an E, then an F, slowly and steadily. Mr. Hattendorf would shout out, “Sing, Robyn. Sing.” It was meant to encourage me, but it usually just reminded me that I was on my own in the brass section and had no room for error. At the end of this exposure, I would drop down to a middle F, which I would sometimes hit. Sometimes, however, I would land on another note, and I had trouble finding the secret to consistency, even though it was a simple octave interval. It was this piece that I would have to play at the funeral of my closest friend.


Karen’s family had arranged for two nights of calling hours at a local funeral home, and for many of us, it would be our first funeral. I had been to my grandmother’s funeral a few years before. Her casket was open, and we stood beside it to see how the morticians had done her hair and her makeup to make her look as alive as possible. An odd custom, I thought then, to dress up a body and primp it so the survivors could say how nice it looked. “She looks so natural, doesn’t she?” people would say to Granddaddy as they filed passed, but the entire process seemed very unnatural to me. How would Karen be presented, I wondered.

Because of her injuries, Karen’s casket was closed, and her school pictures, from kindergarten on, were displayed on top with a dozen red roses. Mrs. MacCauley stood by the casket, looking very tired and wearing a long, black, wool coat. She smiled at every one and held their hands to thank them for coming. I was nervous as I approached her in line because I didn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry for your loss” didn’t seem like enough. “I’m sorry my only real friend is dead. I’m sorry that I will be spending the rest of my senior year in high school alone. I’m sorry that I can’t see her in this box and that I’m left to imagine how horrific the accident must have been and what she must have been thinking in those few seconds before her heart stopped beating. I’m sorry that all of my focus is on how I am effected, and not how you must feel at losing your daughter.” The things I felt were not things I could say to a grieving mother.

Mrs. MacCauley knew how much I loved her daughter and how alone I would be from now on. She hugged me in her wool coat and told me how important I was to Karen. She knew that I didn’t need to say anything and that being there was enough.

On the day of the funeral, every one in the orchestra dressed in our “Sunday clothes” and were dismissed from school early. A bus took us from the school to St. Patrick’s, the catholic church in town. We filed in, adjusted music stands in front of our chairs, readied our instruments, and sat still waiting for our part of the service. It was all very much like a ceremony, like the Veteran’s Day service at the park each year when the band played while men from the VFW carried the flag. I thought that if I could think of this performance in such benign terms, I would get through the afternoon without crying. Wiping away tears during a funeral was perfectly acceptable, I knew, but if I had to play my horn in this situation, I thought I would need to keep my sorrow inside, keep it rolled up on a little piece of paper that I could take out later when not so much was expected of me.

The service began, and six boys carried Karen’s casket through the doors and down the center isle of the church, wearing their marching band uniforms at the request of the family. As I saw my classmates as pall bearers, it was clear that I would need some other distraction besides pretending this was a civil ceremony at the park. I looked down at my shoes and reached down to rub off a scuff mark.

The priest stood at the podium and gave his eulogy, offering his most comforting words to the family. He turned his attention to the dozens of kids in the church, including the orchestra, and said kind words to us as well. I looked around at the stained glass windows and ornate statues in the church trying to decide if Catholics were as deceived as my Baptist pastor had suggested.

My gaze shifted to Mr. Hattendorf, who was sitting on the platform behind the priest. He had been sitting quietly in his chair, but at some point, he had gotten down on his knees, buried his face in his hands, and shook with his crying and praying. Here was a man who was always in control, who demanded attention and obedience, and who often frightened me with his harsh tone and piercing eyes. I had always been afraid of Mr. Hattendorf, but here he was, a heartbroken teacher who had finished the required training for teaching music, but who had not been prepared to bury his students. With a big gulp of air, I shot my gaze back to the stained glass window that showed a haloed Jesus holding a lamb. I could look steadily at this image for a few moments, but soon I would have to raise my horn and follow the conductor’s baton. How could I look at a sobbing man, my teacher, and play my part as if I weren’t heartbroken myself? I practiced breathing deeply and hoped the oxygen would clear my head.

At the appointed time, Mr. Hattendorf left his spot on the platform and joined us in the makeshift orchestra pit. He picked his baton up from his music stand and slowly counted out the beat for us. We all played as if we really were in the park, and I managed not to look my teacher directly in the eye. I can do this, I thought. I can play this piece with the rest of the group for the next several minutes and remain in control of my emotions as long as I don’t look him in the eyes. With that slight encouragement, I played my long exposed D, the E, the F. As I looked up to see if Mr. Hattendorf had noticed the completed phrase, I made the mistake of looking straight at his face, seeing his swollen eyes, his trembling lip, and I cried. When I should have dropped down an octave, I simply pulled my horn from my mouth and stopped all together.

I wasn’t sure if my teacher would be understanding, but at that moment I didn’t care. I was suddenly angry for being put in this position, for being expected to perform a beautiful piece of music at the funeral of a child. When the family asked if we would play, Mr. Hattendorf should have said no. He should have offered his condolences but explained that we were too young and too inexperienced to have to do such a thing. And maybe he should have said that he himself was too young and too inexperienced to have to do this as well. Children were not meant to bury children, I thought as the group finished the piece. I saw my teacher and the kids around me let their shoulders drop as if they had all been holding themselves up for just enough time to get the job done. I wished I could have held up, that I would have had enough strength to play to the end.

After the funeral, the family went to the grave site, and the students were excused, either to go back to school or to go home. Karen’s friends had decided that to go home would be anticlimactic and that spending just a few more hours together would help us end the day a little less painfully. The April sun was deceiving on the chilly day, but with no clouds in sight, we went straight for the nearest park, a playground attached to an elementary school. Like eight-year-olds, we played on the slides, the swings, the teeter-totters. We squealed and laughed and talked about boys. We let out all of the suppressed energy that had had no outlet over the previous days but needed expressing, despite the death of a girl, despite the permanent loss to a family, despite the denting and bruising we had all suffered. After being played out and finally exhausted, we left one at a time, and my mother took me home. The last several days had been surreal ones, days that could not have been compared to any I had known, could not have been mirrored by any television show I had seen, could not have been predicted.

I changed out of my velvet skirt and brown silk blouse and exchanged them for jeans and a T-shirt. I sat on my bed to pet Winston, scratching his ears and stroking him from his neck to the tip of his tail.

“So, good night unto you all,” I recited to him. “Give me your hands, if we be friends, and Robin shall restore amends.” If ever I wanted to be a cat, I thought. If ever I wanted to know that my bowl would always be full and that my bed would always be soft and that my companion would always come home at the end of the day.

The familiar theme to Jeopardy jingled from the TV across the hall, interrupting my almost numb mumbling, and made me want to be in that TV room, the one I had rolled my eyes at for so long, the one where my parents were sitting with their newspapers and toothpicks and knitting needles and foul-smelling peach can full of tobacco juice. I grabbed a pair of socks and joined my parents, finding a spot on the gold-plaid couch to watch a night of television. Winston found his way to my lap and curled up with me, patting down imaginary leaves on my thighs to make his bed more suitable. Someday, maybe in August of 1981, I would have a different room with different people surrounding me, but for now, this was my home base, the place where I could not be tagged. This was my full bowl of provision and safe-keeping, and until the next time that I would need to look at my rolled up piece of paper tucked in a secret place in my dresser, I would hold on tight.