Kasey Zmrhal - March 6, 2021
On any normal day, on any normal drive, I would be sitting in the backseat of my family’s 1953 Plymouth sedan and dad would be behind the wheel. He might be wearing a grey or brown suit, the shoulders of the jacket roomy with its seam dropping below the shoulder line. Mom would be sitting in the front seat reading or humming to the radio, one leg crossed over the other. She’d be wearing floral or black polka dot cigarette pants that hugged her slight but tall frame. Her hand would be on dad’s thigh or she’d be brushing the back of his neck with her index and middle fingers, making a figure eight motion. They’d steal glances at each other. We’d be laughing about something we’d seen on I Love Lucy or The Bob Hope Show the night before. I might sit up on my knees and reach over the top of dad’s seat to tickle his ear. He would not be annoyed by this. Or if he was, he wouldn’t let on. Mom would see this and smile. With the window rolled down, even in the cold, I’d airplane my arm into the wind, letting the frigid air seep through my outstretched fingers. If my gaze happened to meet dad’s in his rearview mirror, his eyes would radiate. I wouldn’t be able to see the lower half of his face, but I’d know he was smiling.
Mom died exactly one week after my ninth birthday. We ate birthday cake, the leaves on the white oak in our front yard started to fall, then mom died. That’s how I remember those seven days; fragments of recollection. I spent years straining to put together the days leading up to her death. What did she get me for my birthday? When was the last time I hugged her? What was the last thing I said to her? It’s all gone. I see birthday cake, I see bare branches, I see mom laying in the street.
The next clear memory I have is of her funeral. Not of the funeral itself, but specifically the drive home. The drive from the funeral home in south Salem to our home on the north side of town took about twenty-minutes. But that night it felt like hours.
Once her service was over and the funeral goers returned home to begin their nightly routines with their families, I climbed into the backseat of the sedan. Dad stood in the parking lot talking to his sister, Lora. They hugged and then he turned and started toward the car. Out the window I watched him as he walked to his driver’s side door, struggling to keep himself upright. He trudged his way forward heavily as if carrying a dead elephant on his back. He reached out to open the door, his chest and shoulders lifting as he took in a hefty breath of icy air. He closed his eyes and exhaled swiftly. Then he opened his door and collapsed down in the driver’s seat, defeated. This was the first time that week that I witnessed a palpable grief in my father. It would be some time before I would understand just how real and how cruel that grief could be.
Dad shut his door and looked over at the empty seat next to him.
“Are you okay, daddy?” I peered over his seat. He jumped, startled.
“Oh Jesus! I didn’t know you were back there! I thought you were still inside.”
“Nope, I’m right here. Why would I be inside? Everyone’s gone home. Didn’t you notice me walking with you?”
“I’m sorry, honey. Of course. I just didn’t see you there. I’m very tired.” He sighed and patted the empty seat next to him. “Sarah, come on up here.” He did not turn around to look at me, nor did he look at me in his review mirror.
I climbed between the two front seats over the center console, my fluffy black dress making it difficult to step through. My shoe caught the hem of my dress. I fell forward onto the seat, my head hitting the armrest of the passenger door, my foot hitting the steering wheel.
“Oops! Sorry, daddy.”
“It’s okay honey,” he said as he stared straight ahead, expressionless. He didn’t wait for me to get settled before he twisted the old steel key in the ignition, fired up the raucous engine, and drove away.
We made our way down Commercial Street, the main thoroughfare in town. The first snow of the year came that evening, emptying downtown of its customary hustle and bustle. We were the only car on the road. My usual busy hands laid still in my lap. My feet dangled a few inches from the floor.
Dad was silent.
Outside snow fell, gently at first, barely noticeable. But before long it was a flurry of white chaos, the flakes dancing and twirling around us. Was dad too sad to notice?
I thought about trying to cheer him up by touching the back of his neck like mom used to do, but then I thought maybe that was something only moms and wives did. Instead, I ran my fingers on the worn tan suede fabric that lined the inside of the passenger door. There was a tear near the window crank I never noticed before. I rubbed the frayed threads between my forefinger and thumb.
“Daddy? What is this tear from?” I asked.
“Yes, honey?” His face was strained, like he was trying to keep something from spilling out of his body.
“This tear, what’s it from?”
He didn’t look over at the tear or at me.
“I’m not sure, Sarah. I just…I don’t know.”
I searched his face for anything that would tell me that he was actually there with me. And just like I did every other time that week—when I begged internally that he would at least try to fill the void born out of mom’s accident—he revealed nothing. He stared straight ahead into the night.
The headlights shone beams of light into white chaos.
I continued to rub the frayed fabric of the tear between my fingers. How many times did mom do the same thing while she sat in this seat? I imagined it. Then I closed my eyes and for a moment I pretended that my fingers were her fingers.
Dad steered into our long driveway, the tires crunching on tiny pebbles, our property’s familiar welcome home song. It snowed nearly six inches that evening, rare for Salem even in the dead of winter. The alabaster powder glowed from the front yard up to the porch of our classic yellow American foursquare. The house was gifted to my dad by his dad, who I called Papa, and it was two and a half stories tall with four double hung windows on both the first and second levels. The white shutters framing the exterior windows hung open. Mom never wanted them closed. The porch was wide and deep and ran the entire the length of the house. Two red chairs and a small bistro table sat to the right of the chestnut colored door. Mom and dad spent many evenings on that porch, smoking cigarettes and drinking bourbon, while I climbed and played on the large white oak in our front yard, that I called Old Oak. I looked out the car window at the tree. With the fresh snow and lack of leaves, Old Oak’s branches looked more like the veins and arteries of a heart.
The snow sat untouched in our front yard and it was taunting me. I wanted to leap out of the car and run as fast as I could into it, letting it cover my face, breathing in the cold powder. I wanted to feel the jolting frigidness slide inside my socks. But even at nine years old with little impulse control, I thought better of it. Now’s not the time, baby girl, I heard my mom’s voice say sweetly in my head.
I got out of the Plymouth and started toward the house. My legs brushed against the thickets of thorny berry-less blackberry bushes planted next to the porch. Within a few steps I realized dad wasn’t following me. The car idled in the driveway. He was still in the driver’s seat, a dark shadowy figure with his shoulders hunched forward. I took small, fast stomps, trying to keep my body warm. As I inhaled and exhaled, I watched my frozen breath float away into the soft wind. Dad’s shadowy figure continued to remain still. I started back to the car, stepping in the footprints I had made in the snow minutes earlier. I went to open the passenger door but I couldn’t. He had locked it. I knocked on the window.
“Daddy? You coming? I’m cold.”
“Daddy?” I knocked louder.
“Daddy? Are you okay? Let me in!”
He didn’t move, didn’t divert his eyes from whatever nothingness he was looking at straight ahead. I pressed my face closer to the window to get a glimpse of his face. Suddenly he turned and looked at me, the first time he’d looked me directly in the eyes all week. A torrent of tears streamed his face. I took a step back, startled. It was the first time I’d ever seen him cry. Watching my father in this moment felt very wrong. I knew he didn’t want me there. I was an intruder, bearing witness to his great release.
Kasey is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. When not agonizing over the MFA application process or writing short stories, she can be found dancing in the living room with her kids, binge-listening true crime podcasts, and baking all things gluten-free.