Victor walked through the doorway and into the dimly lighted room. When he was a boy, he and Fran and Millie had played hide and seek in this room. If he remembered right, the game was a hybrid of hide and seek and tag, and the old radiator against the wall under the window with the shades drawn was the safe place. Of course, in winter the radiator would be hot, so they had to be careful about touching it. The room was very warm, the door having been closed. Victor walked over to the bedside.
His older sister, Fran, lay in the bed, the covers pulled up just beneath her shoulders. She hardly made an outline under the rumpled bedding, as she was slight of frame to begin with, and this condition had wasted her so. Victor reached down and touched her forehead gently.
“My dear Fran. It’s Victor. I’m here to see you and to visit with you and Millie.”
She, of course, made no reply. Only the constancy of breathing, a tube providing oxygen running from out of her nose and around her neck under the bed somewhere. Her hair was neatly arranged, a bit wispier than Victor remembered from her former vigor.
He bent over and kissed her lightly on the forehead.
“It’s so very good to see you, sister. You look wonderful!” He fought back the urge to sob a little, pursing his lips and squinting just a bit. There was a chair pulled up near the bedside. He pulled it closer and sat down, resting his hand on one of Fran’s arms.
As a boy, Victor and his sisters had gone to the funeral of a great uncle named Fleece. As words and names came to Victor later, he grew to not like the name Fleece, as he thought it denoted a man who would cheat or steal, perhaps even from his loved ones. It was a nickname, he realized, but as its owner he thought to himself that he would have rejected it in favor of a term more becoming.
However, Uncle Fleece, as he was known, had been anything but a pilferer or cheat. “As honest as the day is long,” as his own father liked to say. Neither he nor his sisters had known Uncle Fleece, but were made to go to the funeral out of familial duty. Fleece had helped their father at one point in some sort of business transaction, so their father felt especially subjugated to the task of visitation.
Before the funeral, their father had warned them that they would likely see Uncle Fleece dead in his coffin. Indeed, they might have to even go up close and look at him. Victor and his sisters had objected to this requirement, being very unfamiliar with the practice and being especially unfamiliar with the sight of a dead body, but their father had sought to comfort them with the words, “You will notice, children, that when looking at a person’s dead body… you will notice that that person isn’t there. You see the body, it looks as if the deceased might awaken and rise up at any moment, but you will know, perhaps it’s a feeling, but you will know that no one is there. It will be clear to you that the person whose body is there…. that person is gone.”
Victor could hear the words, practically verbatim, in his mind as he sat in the chair beside his dying sister. He had been to many funerals, most recently his beloved’s, and he could swear – if he did swear – that his father’s statement was true without exception. His sweetheart certainly wasn’t there in that coffin, wasn’t there beneath the ground. He knew her to be in paradise. As surely as Jesus assured the thief that he would be in paradise, that day, he was assured that his wife was, too. He wasn’t sure where paradise was, but he was sure it wasn’t a box in the ground.
He heard the words again of his father as he looked at his sister, now grown old herself. His father had gone on many years before, and Victor had seen that he, too, had been absent from the body in his casket. He looked at his sister and met his own mortality, for here was his childhood playmate, here was his pal, one of his best ones, barely resting on a thin precipice this side of eternity. He could see that she still lie there, though, somewhere. His father’s words did not yet apply.
He sat back a bit in his chair and sighed. He seemed to feel older bit by bit almost every day. The realization had been a long time in the arrival. It wasn’t so much that Victor had a point of realizing he was old; it was more a time when he realized he was no longer young.
For some reason, a certain memory came back to him, and lacking a responsive participant, he decided to recount the memory aloud. If Fran could hear, perhaps it would bring her some sort of pleasure in the retelling.
“Fran, I remember a day a while back and I wonder if you remember it also? We were young then, perhaps yet in our teens. Yes, we must have been, for we had only been allowed to drive for a short while. Do you remember Uncle Red’s car… the cream colored Plymouth with the convertible top.. .ohhh, I’m thinking it was a 1939, or maybe a 1940. Cousin Henry would know if we could ask him. Do you remember that car? Only one like it in the county, save old Bob Miller’s.”
“Do you remember that one weekend when Uncle Red and Aunt Cam had gone out to their farm and left the car in the driveway with the keys in it? Do you remember that night? Henry stayed home and you and Millie and I went over there after supper to spend the evening with him? Remember what happened?! Let me tell you!”
Victor sat forward just a tad in his chair, leaning over against one elbow a bit. He looked hard into Fran’s closed eyes. He wanted so badly for her to open them; they were the most lovely hazel in color, and they had such a brightness to them. Would he see them again, ever? He stared longer, wanting her to open her hazel eyes and sit up and fluff her own pillow and pull the awful tube out of her nose and ask for a drink of water – which he would gladly get – and then say, “Yes, Victor, I sure do remember that night,” or, “No, I don’t remember that at all… please tell me!” or, “No, and I don’t care to know,” or, “Go away and leave me alone!!”
Of course, Fran would never say that; he just wanted her to say something, to be there. He leaned back again and looked into his lap, his right hand holding his left, his wedding ring grasped loosely between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. He twisted it round and round a few times.
“Well, Fran, in case some of the details have gotten a little fuzzy, this is what I remember. Let me know if you think I miss something or you remember it differently, okay?” He looked back at her face and reached over and straightened a strand of hair on her forehead. He wanted again to sob.
“Well, as I recall, it got pretty late that evening and Henry told us he didn’t think they’d be back until 11:30 or so. You remember you and I sent Millie over to ask Mom and Dad if we could stay that late? It was late summer, I think, and it didn’t get dark until close to 9:30 or so. After Millie got back with the, ‘Okay but no later unless you call’ response, we listened to the radio a little. Then we went up into the attic and poked around… you found that old suitcase, the one with the lock on it and we figured it must have some sort of secret in it? It was real heavy. We dared each other to force it open, but thought we’d just ask later… maybe Uncle Red would tell us. It probably wasn’t anything.”
The thought occurred just at that point to Victor that he should find some way to get back into that attic next door and see if that old suitcase was still there. He stored the idea away, tapping his forehead gently.
“Anyway, nothing came of that and we forgot all about it. Then Henry said, ‘Say, my dad leaves the keys in his car… y’all wanna go take it for a drive around before it gets dark?’ Oh, the thought of that! You and I just looked at each other, and Millie blurted out, ‘Top down, or up?!’ She always was the one to go along with something!”
“We waited a bit and then went out to the garage and Henry hops in the driver’s seat like he’s done it a million times, turns on the engine and we all get in and we’re thinking how could we do this to Uncle Red, like we were going to drive it off of a cliff or something. I remember thinking Henry would be the one in real trouble, but I knew better deep down. We left the top up so no one would see us, and Henry backed it out real slowly, and off we went!”
Victor leaned forward again and adjusted himself in the chair.
“As I recall, Henry headed out of town pretty quickly, since he wanted to get up some speed. I remember sitting in the front with him, and you and Millie were in the back, and I remember starting to feel really terrible about the whole thing, not so much scared about something bad happening, but just breaking Uncle Red’s trust. Then you said, ‘Henry, maybe we should turn around,’ and I knew you felt as I did! Then Henry said, ‘Okay, but let’s just go over Salt Hill one time.’ You remember that?”
Victor was looking down at his lap as he spoke and thought he heard a sound from Fran. He waited for a few moments, but nothing more, so he continued hopefully.
“Then you remember going over Salt Hill so fast? That hill was just right to get that funny feeling in your stomach like you’re floating! We could never get Dad to go that fast over it, so when Henry took it fast, I bet we were doing 70… and on that gravel! It’s a wonder we stayed on the road in that old car! Then he slowed down and I looked at him and he looked at me. His face was all lit up just like a little kid, and I have to admit mine probably was, too… and he said, ‘One more time?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, one more, just one more.’ Bad idea, wasn’t it, Fran?”
Victor smiled at his sister and waited. He shook his head gently.
“Then we turned around and went back over it and down the other direction a ways, ‘cause you had to go over it just that one way to get that feeling in your stomach. We turned around again and took it even faster! You remember that? Wow, I thought we were going to fly away! Woo hoooo! You and Millie screamed so, you did!”
Victor found himself almost rocking in the chair with animation, his shoulders all shrugged up and half lifting his weight as if he was back in that old Plymouth going over Salt Hill again with Fran and Millie and Henry. He looked at her, expectantly, and then his shoulders fell back down, his face sank, and he sat back.
“Oh, Fran, that was fun. I can still hear that old car creaking when we came over that hill. I remember looking back at you and Millie and you were both laughing! My…! And then…,” Victor laughed out loud. “And then no sooner had we come back down off that hill, probably still doing 75, I bet, there comes Uncle Red and Aunt Cam the other way in their farm truck! Coming the other way in their farm truck, and here we are in their Plymouth convertible – wasn’t another one like it in the whole county, except the one belonging to Bob Miller – here we were going 75, not even supposed to be out in the car to begin with, and we’re going 75! Woooo!!!… I can still see Uncle Red’s face, his eyes as wide as dollar coins when we went by! Hoooweeee!!”
Victor found himself rocking again, his hands balled into fists. He relaxed, cleared his throat a little, and continued.
“Then Henry slows down but just keeps going, ‘cause he don’t know what else to do! What do you do when you’re caught like that? And he grabs the wheel real tight and yells out, ‘I’m a dead man! Dad’s gonna kill me!!’ And I tried to offer up real weak like that maybe his dad thought it was Bob Miller out driving and not us kids, but Henry just yells, ‘Bob Miller don’t drive 75 over Salt Hill!!’ And we knew he was right about that, ‘cause Bob Miller didn’t really hardly drive at all, and probably not over 25 at that when he did, and he never left town! And we figure that, yeah, Uncle Red probably would kill Henry, that very night, and maybe us too!! Wow, what a night!”
Victor was smiling widely by the time the tale was told. He realized that his dialect and inflections, his usage of the language he loved so much, somewhat shifted in the telling. He hadn’t said “gonna” or “’cause” in years, yet it certainly didn’t trouble him now and, in fact, brought him some measure of pleasure.
“Fran, I never did tell my Connie about that night. I never thought of it. Oh, but I wish I had… she would have thought that a hoot.”
Fran lay there, motionless. The doorbell rang.
– Excerpt from Final Days With Fran And Millie, by John Wilson Bach