The doctor tells me a car crash at 60 miles per hour threw Karen forward at 120 times her body weight. She remembered to buckle her seatbelt so that means 1/10 th of a second later she came to a stop. But her internal organs did not. They collided with her bones and broke open. Most people die right off the bat, the doctor says, but not Karen. Karen died minutes later.
I ask how many minutes later.
"Beats me," he says. "No clue."
He says probably she looked okay - probably she even stepped away from the wreck and said, "Thank God," - but underneath her skin things bled.
The endorphins soon faded, the pain set in, a dull soreness that made her lift up the black blouse I bought her from JC Penny to discover a purplish stain spreading across her distended belly, the scar from her cesarean no doubt looking so white against it.
The doctor says there was nothing he could do.
"D.O.A.," he says.
"I'm very sorry," he says, "but these things happen.
This is why I take out my gun sometimes, and look at it.
It is a .357, a revolver, something Dad got me when I turned sixteen. Back then I wanted to be a spy - not a farmer - someone who traveled to exotic places and wore tuxedos and drank his martinis shaken. And so the .357 seemed like a step in the right direction, somehow. On my birthday Dad and I went through a whole box of bullets - blasting pop cans, tree knots, the pigeons roosting in the hayloft - so that our hands and ears hurt the next morning.
But that was a long time ago.
Now I take the gun out and look at it and it reminds me how different things were before the crash.
Before the crash we lived in a doublewide trailer twenty steps from the white two-story farmhouse where I grew up. It wasn't the life I wanted. I wanted to go to college - maybe major in international politics or something - but stayed on the farm because Dad and Ma asked me to in a collective voice that was more command than question.
This happened at dinner, and I held my knife but didn't cut with it.
"Don't get stirred up," Ma said. "We need you. Plain and simple."
"I'm going to go," I said. "It's my money."
Dad scooped some mash potatoes and tasted them and studied his plate. "Well then," he said. "You got to do what you got to do."
"I'm going," I said and meant it. I enrolled at Oregon State for the fall but that summer met a girl named Karen through 4-H. She had long blond hair that was always getting in her way. I liked how she blew it from her face and swept it over her shoulder and chewed on it when watching television. In the bed of my pickup she got pregnant and a month later we were married at the United Methodist. Afterwards there was a reception where people shook our hands and ate cantaloupe wrapped in bacon.
We honeymooned two nights at the Eugene Holiday Inn where she told me "Take it easy" because I couldn't keep my hands off her. She bit her lower lip a lot and I asked what was her deal? She touched her stomach. It was starting to poke out.
"Oh," I said.
"It's starting to get real," she said.
It was an it - not a baby - like "It moved" or "It's making me nauseous." We spent no time guessing its gender or cruising the aisles of Wal-Mart for breast pumps or blue or pink jumpers. Maybe it would go away if we pretended it didn't exist?
In the hotel Jacuzzi we played a game where we wished for everything under the sun. We wished for yachts, mansions, summers in Tahiti, millions and billions of dollars. What we didn't wish for was a life gone to pot, stuck on the family farm and pregnant at the ripe old age of eighteen.
Then the honeymoon ended, and when we got back home, the brand-new doublewide was waiting for us.
"Now that was a job," Dad said and rubbed his hands as if he hadn't yet cleaned the work off them. "Poured the foundation myself. Townsend's son ran the plumbing and electricity over. Quite a job. Nothing fancy. But she'll do the trick."
Karen liked it. I didn't but pretended to for her sake. Later on I told Dad, "Even though I'm sticking around, I don't have to like it."
"Might try to," he said.
I stayed angry for a time but then Hannah was born and I caught myself hugging Dad in the hospital waiting room, partly because I was happy, mostly because I was afraid. Everything smelled like ammonia when we thumped each other on the back and he said, "I'm glad this happened."
I said, "I'm glad, too." Which sounded right at the time.
The first time Karen got on a plane - she was fifteen and visiting a cousin in Salt Lake - the electricity went out at 30,000 feet. All of sudden, no lights, no engines, no recycled air funneling through the vents. For about ten seconds nobody said a word. She said she had never been more aware how loud quiet could get. Then the screaming started. She thought she was a goner. Bar none, the scariest thing in world history, she said. Then everything kicked back into gear and the pilot got on the intercom and said a prayer of Thanksgiving.
It was just one of those things.
The man sitting next to Karen was laughing and crying at the same time. She borrowed him a tissue, and he said, "Are we in Heaven?" pointing out the window where the clouds were white and puffy. "I bet that's what it looks like."
So whenever we went on vacation, it would be to a place within driving distance: Yosemite, Puget Sound, Crater Lake. She said to hell with the statistics - how much more likely you were to die in a car - it was a matter of control. In a plane, who knows if the pilot's been drinking, if the mechanic tightened the five-cent lug nut holding the wing in place, if someone stuck a bomb in their shoe?
"If it's not one thing, it's another," she said. "And I'd rather not tempt fate."
She preferred to be the one in the driver's seat. Here - she said - nothing was out of her control.
The other day Ma wrote out some Christmas cards. On their front was baby Jesus in the manger. Baby Jesus glowed like he had fire under his skin. Everybody - Joseph and Mary and the wise men and donkeys - hung around his cradle and looked worried and amazed and frightened at the same time.
This is how I feel about Hannah.
Right then Hannah - who looks too much like her mother - plopped down on the rug with crayons and a yellow legal pad and Ma asked what are you doing, sweetie?
She said writing a Christmas card. Which I got a kick out of, seeing how she can barely spell her name.
I asked who was she writing to, and she said, "My mommy."
My mouth opened. I didn't know what to say so I didn't say anything. Ma put down her pen and gave me a look. I knew that look. For the past two years I got it everywhere I went. Your eyebrows come together, your cheeks go slack, your lower lip does this tremble thing - it was the Hallmark look.
I'm so sorry, she seemed to be saying. I'm here for you.
Which quite frankly pissed me off in a lot of ways. So I said in a mean voice, "That's just great," looking at Ma, talking to Hannah. "And how exactly do you plan on mailing it to her?"
Ma's expression changed to one of disapproval. She clucked her tongue at me and said, "What your daddy means is, do you know which cloud in Heaven your mother lives on? Because we can look it up in the phone book if need be."
Hannah stopped scribbling and stared at me under all that hair. "I'll just send it with you when you go," she said.
The crash happened one mile from the farm, at the intersection of Highway H and Bear Brook Lane, where an asphalt X marks the spot.
Sometimes when I can't sleep I drive to the X and park in its middle and cry in a moaning way. The sound of it embarrasses me so I turn up the oldies station as loud as it goes. The Beach Boys tell me "Don't worry, baby," and I wonder what it feels like to bleed to death without spilling a single drop of blood?
Even at night - if the moon is out - I can see forever, not a stick for miles, just pasture, the silhouettes of Holsteins, silos, barbed-wire fences, and beyond all this, the Townsend farm and then the interstate where headlights turn into taillights, where engines scream as semis downshift their way toward Eugene.
The black pickup - a Dodge - it must have seen her - her zipping home from the mini-mart with bread and orange juice - it must have seen her and thought it could beat her through the intersection? And she must have seen the black truck and figured it would stop like the stop sign told it to?
What a surprise they were in for.
In the morning - after I've milked, after I've scraped clean and hosed down the barn - I drive Hannah through the X and drop her off at kindergarten. There is no snow but everything looks shiny, laminated by frost, so I take it easy on the roads and imagine our truck turned over in the ditch and flaming while nobody comes to our rescue.
This morning Hannah wears a pink animal sweatshirt. The animal is a teddy bear that lost its balloon. The teddy bear jumps, paw outstretched, the balloon's string forever out of reach.
I ask is she still my little girl? She doesn't answer, too busy organizing her backpack. I say, "You look real pretty today, Hannah. I like how Grandma did your hair. Is that called a French braid?"
She turns her face from me.
I say, "Hannah?"
"Quiet," she says.
"Quiet?" I say, not angry but amused. "What do I got to be quiet for?"
"I'm talking to Mommy."
For a second I feel afraid but only for a second. I check the rearview - nothing, nobody - the backseat and highway are empty. And then I feel stupid for feeling afraid. And then I feel angry for feeling stupid. I could spank her, slap her for doing this to me. For looking like a miniature version of her mother. For reminding me - everyday - exactly why it is I hurt.
"Damn it," I say. There is nothing else to say.
"Don't swear," she says and I sort of laugh and sort of sob and reach out to touch her cheek with the back of my hand.
All this under a sky as cold and unforgiving as God's good grace.
On the phone - as usual - Ma talks about Hannah.
"Can you believe it, Dolores?" she says. "Have you ever heard of such a thing?" She goes quiet a second, listening. " Ev eryday she talks about her. Mommy this, Mommy that." Her voice is serious but excited. "It's funny. It's weird, don't you think? At her age you'd think she'd hardly remember?" She makes a mm-hmm noise. "Every single day, Dolores. I think the girl has some sixth sense about her, is what I think."
Hannah lies on the davenport, next to Dad, hopefully asleep but probably faking. I lower my voice to a whisper and say, "Would you stop talking so loud?"
Ma makes a face and bends over her belly, undoes her Keds, peels off her socks.
"Did you hear me?" I say, "You'll just encourage her."
She points at her feet and wiggles her toes and says, "Yes, Dolores, I'm here. Keep going."
I pretend I don't know what she wants. Again she points at her feet, which will smell like warm milk, and I sigh and take them in my hands and feel disgusted for the swollen way her ankles hang over her feet, veins marbling up their paleness.
Dad clears his throat to get my attention. He folds and unfolds the newspaper. It makes a crackling sound like some powerful electricity. He asks did I know Rusty Warner died?
I did not.
He looks at me over his reading glasses. "Got crushed. Tried to loosen up two tons of frozen silage with a sledgehammer." He tightens his lips and shakes his head. "Fool thing to do."
I say, "Just like that?" I run my thumb up and down Ma's arch and she pats my head and says, "Yes, just like that. That's the ticket."
I give my eyes a roll and Dad says, "Yeah. Just like that. And you know, you'd think he'd have known better." He takes off his reading glasses and points them at me. "How they found him was he didn't show up to work. He was always Johnny-on-the-spot when it came to work. Real good work ethic. Good guy. You know I seen him at the gas station just three days ago? Just think, one day you're fine, the next..."
I wait for him to maybe flinch, apologize, say, "Oh. Sorry."
But he doesn't. In his mind Karen is ancient history. Every once in a while he'll say something - "She was a real peach," for instance - but in truth he likes how I've moved back into the big house - just like old times - how I go through the motions without complaint.
Ma says, "And what other news do I got? My Joey took me up to Chinook Winds." Her face crumples up when she smiles at me, like: good boy. "So we played the nickel slots, yeah, nothing big, just nickels. Real fun. Nice time." She giggles a little. "And Dolores, you're not going to believe what happened." She puts a hand to her breast and at first I think she might be out of breath. But she's just being dramatic. "I won twenty dollars on one pull. What was that? Yep. Yes. Oh, can you believe it? Just like that, twenty whole dollars." She trades the phone to the other side of her head. "I loved to hear them clinking. Quite a noise." She makes her fingers into falling nickels and goes, "Clink, clink, clink, clink," in a shrill voice that ends in laughter.
Dad says, "For Heaven's sake, can you imagine what that must have been like?" He creases the newspaper. "It must have been like a freight train. Two tons. Pow ! I bet that won't be no open-coffin funeral. I bet old Rusty is flat as a pancake. Probably never knew what hit him. What a idiot way to go."
In her sleep Hannah whimpers and shakes her head, no , and I think about my gun and what will happen next.
Death can be very ordinary. Take for example the half-finished glass of milk Karen left on the counter before she drove off and got killed. For a whole week it stayed there. Part of me hoped she might come back and finish it. First it turned hard on the surface, then gray, then greenish - and before I poured it down the drain I ran my tongue along its rim, knowing her lips had been there, pleasuring in the sour taste. On her sewing table was a piece of paper with her handwriting on it. It read: "Orange juice, bread," and "Dry cleaning" and "Call Norma." I wonder what they would have talked about. To this day the note hasn't moved. Sometimes I see it and feel surprised, like: if she's gone, why don't her things disappear, too?
And death can be very strange. The day after she died, I went with her parents to pick out a coffin. We were walking around the funeral home, going, "That looks like a good one," when all of a sudden Karen's father's prosthetic hand fell off. He lost the real one years ago. Chopped off by the combine. Anyway, all of a sudden some spring or rubber band or whatever came loose and his prosthetic hand fell off. It made a thud sound against the hardwood and we all crowded around and stared at it, lying there, waiting for it to crawl away.
It looked so real I expected blood might start pouring from its stump. But no blood poured. Instead we all started bawling our eyes out.
That hand must have pushed a button in our heads or something.
I take out my gun and look at it.
Two pounds of pressure is all it takes. I put it in my mouth and then to my ear. There it makes noises like a seashell would. I hear a beach - some faraway coconut isle - where gulls screech and waves slap the white sand that would stick to my feet as I chased Karen off her towel and into the ocean, her turquoise bikini lost in the blue of the water.
How beautiful life could be.
Yet here I am in a room crowded with 4-H trophies - golden cows and pigs - and FFA ribbons and toy tractors, little John Deeres, all green and gold and collecting dust, yesterday's treasures. Here is my high school diploma. Here is a pile of National Geographics stacked in the corner, high and ready to topple. Here is a photo of Karen. Here are my coveralls, washed and folded and smelling faintly of barn. Here is my life.
Two pounds. When the trigger gives, the hammer will fall and strike one of six .357 caliber bee stings waiting on deck. Right then a tiny spark will combust some 230 grains of gunpowder, pressurizing the chamber to 12,000 lbs/sq inch, sending a conical piece of lead down a four-inch tunnel and into my ear, obliterating any wax deposits, the drum, some bone, on its way toward the brain - mushrooming - its path growing considerably wider and messier and before long a lot of red will pour out of me.
All this in one terrible second.
I won't have felt a thing.
I will be deaf in one ear. I will have a bullet seeded in my brain. But maybe I will have another heartbeat or two before everything shuts down? If so, then maybe my good ear will finally hear the bullet that killed me? It will have broken the sound barrier, tearing into my head at 800 ft/sec, its sonic boom moving in concert with my smiling lips as I wish my pathetic life goodbye.
Karen floats out of my brain and sits on my lap. I give her a hug and she says, "Listen to me. Okay? If that gun goes off, it will kill you, but it will destroy your family. Think of Hannah."
I think of Hannah sleeping down the hall. In the darkened room her small chest rises and falls. Her eyes, wide open and watching the shadows dance across the ceiling. I feel a mixture of affection and creeps.
"Fine," I say and put the gun back in its box and kick it under the bed.
Another wish that will never come true.
"Think about it this way," she says. "You really want to trade places with me?" All of a sudden her skin turns gray and then purple and then blacker than a crow before falling off to reveal a skeleton who laughs like that witch from the Wizard of Oz and asks do I think life is supposed to be an easy thing?
On Christmas Eve Ma asks me to pick up some things at the Safeway where I nearly crash my cart into another.
"Sorry about that," the guy with the goatee says. And then, "Hey, I know you? Joey! Long time no see."
This is Rick - who was three years ahead of me? - who quarterbacked and dated all the pretty girls and once got suspended for flipping Miss Beasley the bird during gym class.
I put on a smile for him, same as you might for a photographer - not because you're happy, but because you're supposed to look that way. Fact is, seeing him made me feel ashamed.
I ask what was he up to these days? He says, "I'm in Portland. I'm with Nike. Assistant manager to the chief executive of marketing and research." Which sounds important? Which must be important because he wears nice clothes. The kind you imagine men would wear in high-rise offices when leaning back in a leather chair, their hands behind their heads, talking about dinner reservations or golf handicaps or whatever. His tie is made of a shiny silver material that sucks up light and turns it into every color of the rainbow.
He says, "What about you?"
I say, "Still farming." My smile cramps up.
"That's something else," he says in a full-of-crap voice. "I admire you for it."
"Well," I say, fooling with my belt. "It's not exactly rocket science."
Even his groceries embarrass me. He buys soymilk and these weird brown fruits with hair on them. He buys Frosted Flakes - I buy Frost Bombs - generic crap with a dumb lion on the box.
We talk about Karen and how sorry he is. He says, "When it rains, it pours."
I say, "You can say that again."
On television Jimmy Stewart considers jumping into a cold dark river. And though I've seen It's a Wonderful Life a thousand times, I can't help but wonder does he have the balls? Will he do it this Christmas?
The sentimental music rises and Ma says from the kitchen, "Racket. I've had enough of it. Shut that thing off." She bangs around a few pots and everything smells like nutmeg.
I know what comes next. I know that dumb angel - Clarence? Charlie? - will plop down from the sky and make everything better. But not this year. I kill the TV and the last thing I see is Jimmy watching the river, waiting for it to swallow him up.
Ma says, "It's almost time for supper, Hannah, so maybe you should go get Grandpa from the barn. Tell him to wash up." She spoons some lard into a pan and knobs the burner to high and notices Hannah still staring at the darkened TV screen. "Hannah? Should you go get Grandpa?"
Hannah shrugs, says, "If you want."
"If you want," Ma echoes and throws up her arms. "Pshaw!"
Right then the phone rings and Ma wipes her hands before picking it up. "Yeah? Yeah, Dolores." Her voice gets all cheery and high. "Merry Christmas to you, too."
For a minute Hannah and I watch the dead TV. Then she says, "Something stinks." There is a woomph sound followed by a scream, the scream just enough after the woomph to seem its echo.
I see fire rising from the pan. I see Ma dropping the phone. It shatters against the floor and a silver-crowned battery rolls into the living room and under the Christmas tree. "Oh no," she says. "Help," she says. "You've got to help." But I don't. I don't even breathe. I watch when she picks the pan off the stove and puts it down on the linoleum to drop a towel over. The towel smokes a second before catching fire and Ma says, "Help me," kicking the whole flaming mess out the door and into the garage. On the floor is a smoking black circle with a brown comet's tail.
Hannah follows the tail to the door and disappears through it. I can hear Ma crying. Between gulping sobs she says, "Should have used soda or salt. Or covered it with a pan."
She comes back inside with Hannah in her arms, Hannah carefully wiping the tears off Ma's cheeks with one tiny white hand.
"Oh no," Ma says, noticing the floor. "Oh for Heaven's sake, what next?"
Right then the smoke alarm goes off and I have this vision.
I see myself in a flaming house. I see myself at the bottom of a river. I see myself shot in the head. I see myself in a totaled car, my liver punctured and leaking a darkish green bile. I see my body in a coffin in the United Methodist. I see Dad taking Ma's hand and pressing it to my chest, making her say goodbye. And I see Hannah wearing a little black dress, sitting in the front pew, her lips moving - in prayer or lullaby - as she colors in her coloring book, looking up now and then when the pastor's voice cracks, her face innocent like you wouldn't believe. I see months pass. I see spring arrive. I see Dad out in the fields - without me - plowing, disking, picking the rocks brought up by winter. I see him seeding and spraying and fertilizing and before long tiny green shoots of soybean and corn would shoot up.
"What next?" Ma says.
I say, "Good question."