BY LAUREL WHITTIER
Seven O’clock p.m., Wednesday July 10, 1989:
“You’re never around. The girls are growing up with a father they barely know. You told Laurel you would go to her soccer game tonight…”
The hum of raised voices from downstairs was nothing new. The perpetual drone of angry and bitter words had become routine. Each night after Mom had tucked me in, put my sister Paige in her crib, and gone downstairs to have another glass of wine, I would listen carefully for the slamming car door, the sound of Dad’s key in the lock. He immediately tromped down the stairs to his office, where he immersed himself in numbers and ignored everything that was important, according to my mother.
Tonight was no exception. Dad came home, ignoring the disappointed comments from my mother, and retired to the basement. I took my usual seat on the stairs above, pushing my legs through the opening so they could swing while I listened to the arguments below.
“Dotty, I just can’t deal with this anymore. It’s called a job, something that you haven’t had in the last six years,” screamed my father. My parents’ arguments had a symphonic quality, the voices rising, then dipping, then rising again in a melody they seemed to know by heart.
Two O’clock p.m., Thursday, July 11, 1989:
“God Damn It!” The steering wheel emitted a loud thud, my father’s fist connected with it. Smokey tufts billowed from under the hood of the car and seemed to accumulate each minute, rising up to form a mushroom shaped cloud above the car’s front end. My mother, sister and I sat in the subdued silence of expectation, waiting for the torrent of obscenities which promised to overflow any second from my father’s mouth.
We were on our way to Massachusetts, on our annual summer trek from New York to Melrose, the picturesque suburban community of my parents’ youth and my birth. I was six, far more concerned with my new L.A. Lights sneakers which flashed a fuchsia light when I walked, and the traditional rest stop break at the TCBY for Blue Smurf ice cream, than with the current crisis at hand.
This was the second time this month that the car had left us stranded, standing among the wayward weeds of the highway as cars sped by. “I thought I told you to have the transmission checked out before we left,” my father growled, beads of perspiration and the red vein on his forehead popping out with distinct clarity.
“Jon said it was fine. Just a little temperamental,” my mother said, as she attempted to place a soothing hand on my father’s arm.
“Temperamental?” my father screamed. “Cars are not temperamental. Dogs and children are temperamental. What moron decides a transmission problem is the result of a car’s a personality defect?”
Dad called Triple A, requesting a tow truck and rental car. However, as the sun began to set, the dusky sky of July fading away to reveal the stars overhead, the car and tow truck had yet to arrive and Dad was still pacing, a clear, discernable path left in the grass by many footsteps. The façade of control had long gone, giving way to an evening characterized by biting words, clipped phrases and angry tears.
The rental car finally arrived, the Enterprise salesman smiling in a manner strangely reminiscent to the mannequins I had seen in Macy’s at the mall with Mom. My father had on a similar expression, a frozen smile below vacant and staring eyes.
We piled into the rental car, a blue four door Pontiac whose sweet odor of fast food and stale cigarettes remained unmasked by the green tree air freshener swinging from the rear view mirror. I sat in the back seat clutching Alice, my cabbage patch twin, a red-haired doll who understood everything.
I stayed with Grandma Whittier, my father’s mother, that week. Mom and Paige stayed at Grandma and Grandpa Lawry’s house, while my father returned home with rental car, forsaking our family vacation for another week of work. “Someone has to pay for the temperamental car,” he had responded angrily to my mother’s pleas for him to remain.
Six o’clock p.m. on Thursday, July 18, 1989:
“We have news of a possible collision between two different fronts in New York tonight, creating the possibility of a severe storm…” droned the weather woman on Channel 5. The TV was always on at Grandma Whittier’s house. Mom said it was because she was lonely; Grandpa had died that spring.
We were sitting on the porch outside when the call came, having a tea party with real china, chocolate chip cookies and milk. “Hello,” Grandma answered, as she bent down to still the flapping lace tablecloth. Her face crumpled in response to the news on the other end of the line, anguish seeping into the well worn creases in her face. Tears fell from her eyes, leaving marks on the otherwise pristine tablecloth. “Is he ok? Is he ok? Oh my God,” she cried over and over again into the mouthpiece. I fed Alice a chocolate chip cookie and waited, listening as the weather woman on Channel 5 announced breathlessly, “We have just had confirmation…the two fronts have collided, creating a tornado which has already hit and paralyzed several communities in New York…"
Six Fifteen a.m., Friday, July 19, 1989-
Mom dragged me out of bed, eyes still heavy with sleep. Paige was already on her hip, dressed, bottle in mouth. "Time to go, Laurel. Get up."
The other cars and trucks on the highway stood still as Mom raced home; Grandpa's shiny black Cadillac floated past all other traffic.
Halfway through Connecticut blazing sirens behind us caused Mom to pull over. The skin covering her face shrank a bit more each minute, creating a woman characterized by pinched angles and lines.
The state trooper strode to the car window, the click clacking of his boots slow, menacing and determined.
"Were you aware of your speed ma'am?" he drawled. "Yes sir, I was," my mother replied, her terse words staccato sharp in comparison to the meandering tones of the trooper.
"Do you have an explanation for your excessive speed?" he inquired, flashing a smile towards my sister's blond curls and car seat.
"Well, while you're asking," my mother replied, "my roof was ripped off by a tornado as my husband changed to go jogging last night. He is now staying with friends, his underwear the only article he owns. The contents of my house are scattered across three counties and there is a tree in my living room. Standard response for you, I'm guessing?"
The trooper had taken several visible steps backwards during my mother's spiel, and wiped his face to remove the saliva that had flown from her mouth with pinpoint accuracy.
"Please be careful and keep it around eighty then," he smiled. "Wouldn't want anything to happen to the cargo in the back," he yelled over his shoulder, retreating back to his car.
Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York passed by, unmemorable blobs of flying trees and traffic which appeared stationary from the back seat.
We finally reached the condominium complex, the traditionally well-kempt front area a churned mess of flowers, twisted metal and shiny bits of broken glass.
A nameless bride's wedding picture lay atop the rubble, a silent reminder of the memories lost and wreckage to come. I squeezed Alice to my chest tightly, our car making its way down a makeshift road barely able to accommodate the wide berth of the car.
I peered out the window, where a rocking horse without a head rocked slowly in the midst of clothing, papers, pictures and other debris.
Melissa, my best friend who lived in Condo #1401, did not wave at me as we drove past. She was examining a Barbie with one leg and half an arm, its plastic head twisted grotesquely behind its body.
Red and blue lights flashed, uniforms outnumbering residents.
Mom could only pull halfway up to the house, prevented from going any further by a basketball hoop draped across the road. We approached what had once been home, Mom sprinting, dragging me behind her, with Paige dangling precariously from her hip. Daddy sat on the front steps, arms sagging between his legs while aid workers and friends talked, and nobody listened.
Our house reminded me of the dollhouses at the museum in Cape Cod, one side missing so as to allow all a peek at the contents inside. The roof had been swept away entirely-the structure remaining equated to three walls of utter chaos.
My mother put Paige down next to me and ran to my father, embracing him tightly as he began to cry. Huge, wrenching sobs poured out of this man I had thought to be invincible and indestructible, a force to be reckoned with.
A piece of my dresser lay at my feet. Christmas decorations, absurd in their cheeriness, were scattered in all directions. A woman from the Red Cross, white uniform sparkling despite the debris, fed Paige and I chocolate ice cream. My neighbors wandered around, zombies created by destruction.
And in the midst of it all, my parents sat, my father's head in my mother's lap. He raised his head, looked into her eyes and began to laugh as he said, "I think one of your nursing bras is in a tree out back." My mother joined in, the two of them laughing on the front steps of the demolished house, with its contents outside instead of in, their voices blending together to form a new symphony, one of harmony and peace.
Paige and I remained in the back of the Red Cross truck, she sleeping while I played with various twisting tubes of plastic and retractable stretcher beds. And at the end of the day, when Mom called, "Time to go for dinner," I left Alice sitting in the ambulance amid rubber gloves and sterile utensils, and joined Mom, Dad and Paige for the first meal with my new family.