I come this close to giving the cemetery a miss. But at the last minute I cut the wheel, turn in, skidding as I brake. It’s all right. This should be a little dangerous. The icy wind is blowing gale force. The last, fast, winter remnant of dreary light has left the sky, leaving the night to just the dead and me. My sister will be tapping her red talons on the table, fretting over what on earth’s become of me. No matter, for after I have arrived with my full complement of Christmas presents and excuses, she will lose all interest in my irksome existence. I have just driven 11 hours in a storm to be ignored.
I crest the rise and park the car and get out, and I grab my coat. This won’t take long, although it should. My parents lie attentive here, prepared to listen if it takes all night. I could devote an hour each to all their sins, and neither one would interrupt. But I’ve no heart for the recitation. All I feel is free and cold, relieved if anything.
I walk over and pat the frozen stone with my cold hand. Tit for tat. And then I hear a woman’s voice, not 10 yards away. At first I think she’s crying, but no, she’s talking on a cellphone. I never tumble the first time. I am forever poised to approach chattering strangers, to ask, “Is everything all right?” only at the last minute spying the miniature telephone, then nodding oddly.
I hurry back toward the car. My bones are ice. The woman’s voice is too.
“I want you to know just what you’ve done,” I hear her say, and then she’s sobbing, loud jagged cries. I turn and stand a minute, then walk slowly between the stones toward her. She is kneeling by a grave, her back shaking, and I walk over and put my bare hand on her shoulder. She shudders but goes on weeping for the longest time. When finally she stands and turns toward me, I take her in my arms. It’s far too cold, it is too dark, to stand here separately.
“She was my little girl,” she intersperses words with gasps for air. “She was my only daughter. I miss her so.”
“I know,” I say. “I know.” I do know. I miss every single daughter that I never had.
“She was beautiful. She didn’t think she was.”
“What color was her hair?” Her story asks for details.
“Brown. It fell down to her waist. She was so pretty. I have a picture in the truck if you want to see it.” And it strikes me we should show each other pictures more often. And we should want to see them. We turn from the gravestone surrounded by a tiny white stone cross, a wreath, a crystal Christmas tree, a plastic snowman on a spike, and walk into the blackness.
“Get in,” she says. “It’s warmer in the truck.” I climb in, and it is.
“I’m sorry to be keeping you,” she says. “You have places you need to be.” She hands me a small plastic photo album with a picture of a woman with a little girl. She points to the woman. “That’s my Jessie.”
“Who’s that?” I point at the little girl.
“That’s Jessie’s daughter Kara, my granddaughter. She’s 18 next month.
“Jessie was a nurse.” The mother turns the page, pointing to a photo of a sheet cake with Jessica spelled with a couple s’s and Cum Laude spelled the way you would expect. “She was second in her class.” She starts to cry again.
“What happened?” I say.
“Car crash,” she says. “She was 32. I’m sorry I’m holding you up here.”
“No, it’s fine. I was just visiting my parents’ grave.”
“You’re so kind,” she says. I’m really not, I don’t say in reply.
“They’re all sitting in the kitchen having themselves a merry Christmas. I know. I drive by. I see them.”
“Who is?” I ask, but I am pretty sure I know.
“The ones that did it, the ones that killed my little girl. They weren’t even drunk. They didn’t even have that for an excuse. They were just out cattin’ around. Just driving like crazy people.”
“They could have been drunk,” I say. For some reason, I want that to be the case.
“Nope. Not a trace of blood alcohol. Two brothers sober as a judge, out killing people on a Tuesday night. November 24th, two days before Thanksgiving. I want to drive over there tonight. I want to tell them Kara ran away the day we buried Jessie. I haven’t heard from her in two years. I want to go sit down in their living room and show them a picture of who they killed that night. I call them on the phone. I have them on my speed dial. They won’t even change their number. They won’t even do that. I call and yell into the phone, and whoever picks up says they’re sorry, they’re so sorry. I’m sick of them. I’m sick to death of the whole lot of them.”
“Did you ever go there?” I say. “To see them.”
“Why?” she says. “Would you want to see them?”
“No,” I say. I don’t know what I want except I am entirely certain I do not want to go to my sister’s house tonight.
“Well, I would go over there if you go along,” she says. “But I know you’re busy.”
“No, it’s not that. I’m just not sure just what we would accomplish.”
“Well, we could find out what happened.”
“But didn’t you find out in court?”
“What court? There wasn’t any court. No booze, no court. They don’t live that far from here. It wouldn’t take us half an hour to go over there and talk and get you back here.”
“It is Christmas Eve. People are busy.”
“I’m not,” she says.
She starts the truck and puts the thing in gear.
We drive along in silence, the kind snow makes on a winter’s night. Without warning, her truck lurches to a stop in front of a brick ranch house with enormous picture windows. The lights are on. They’ve got a Christmas tree. Does it show a want of feeling?
“You knock on the door,” she says. “I’ll stand behind you.”
I hear myself regaling my sister’s in-laws with the saga of this evening over Christmas dinner tomorrow. My sister sighing, “That is so like you.” My sister not knowing me at all. It is as though I play to the image they have of me, as though the places I go, the things I do are to fulfill an image they’ve created. Unless I am precisely as they imagine me to be.
We’re standing at the door. The woman rings the bell and then jumps behind me as the door opens.
“Hello,” I say.
“Can I help?” A searchlight porch light flicks on. “Margaret? Margaret Laman? Is that you? I can’t believe it.” This pudgy stranger speaks my name and his profound amazement. “What are you doing here? Boy, this is one big surprise, I’ll tell you that.”
I would swear under oath I never saw this man before. “Well. What the dickens are you doing here? I know your mum died last spring, and they said you couldn’t get here for the funeral ’cause you was off in China or someplace like that, and now you’re here. I can’t believe it. I cannot believe it. Where are my manners? Come on in, come on in. Why, I bet I haven’t laid eyes on you since the 12th grade. Boy, I had the worst crush on you, I’ll tell you that.”
Crush on me. Crush on me? Nobody ever had a crush on me. I had crushes. Mad crushes. Not the other way around.
I feel a sharp nudge from behind and nearly stumble as I cross the threshold into the house of this stranger.
“Who’s this?” he says.
The man has spied my companion, and when the light falls on her face, his own face falls in on itself; he ages before my eyes, his body slackens and drops into a chair.
“You didn’t say that you were friends,” Jessie’s mother turns on me.
“Margaret,” the man says. “I don’t understand.”
That makes it an even three of us. As if responding to some invitation, the woman and I sit too, each on separate straight-back chairs.
And it hits me. Just like that. This is Bobby. Bobby Reasinger. He was a Catholic. He took shop. He lived in a little house down the alley from my grandmother’s. He had two cats and a mother who rode a bicycle in public, in daylight, all over town. She wore a housedress, like all our mothers did, but she rode a bike around. And now here he sits tonight, his two sons the killers of a young nurse, pretty in the photographs.
I want to say to Bobby, Whatever happened to your mother? thinking that the thought of her might be a pleasant thing. Or I might tease him, say, So, you say you had a crush on me? Or murmur, Why did your two sons kill this woman’s child?
“They say it’s going to be a really snowy winter,” I say instead.
“I heard that,” Bobby says.
“My Jessie loved the winter,” her mother says. The no-talk talk won’t work on Christmas Eve. The Savior won’t be born till morning. A deep night silence falls now, and we sit here like we are in some play. And oddly, eerily, there is something like a comfort in the room. The father of the killing boys, the mother of the killed one, and I, who have no business here or anywhere, sit, as though we have decided, we three, that the world will be silent from now on.
Silent as softness. Silent as prayer. Silent as no thinking ever is.
I have no expectation that we will ever leave this place. Trail’s end. The Christmas tree has all blue lights, the door on a small wood stove stands ajar just enough to show a sliver of red-yellow heat, a thin voice in the kitchen rises above the radio, singing: “’Round yon virgin, mother and child, holy infant, so tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace…”
The singer, who must be Bobby’s wife, comes in from the kitchen with a plate of cookies.
“Patty,” Bobby says. “This here’s Margaret Laman.”
“I know,” she says instead of hello. We three pretend Jessie’s mother isn’t in the room. It seems a kindness.
“He used to have a crush on me,” I say. Cocktail party talk.
“I remember,” she says. “Fall of 11th grade, till we graduated.” Bobby frowns and blushes. I wonder if he wishes he could disappear, go back home to his mom and dad, three blocks and 40 years away. Back home, start over.
But good grief. This woman said we graduated. Does that mean that I am expected to resurrect some memory of who she was in that first incarnation? Tonight she looks a lot like my sister, standing here with her plate of careful cookies in her Santa-reindeer-candy-cane-manger-shepherd sweater. What’s up? I don’t have anything against her. I don’t even know her.
It’s my sister I have something against. My sister who is no doubt standing in her boughs-of-holly family room tsk-hissing, sighing at my reliable lack of all consideration. “She’s probably stopped to do her Christmas shopping,” I can hear her saying to her husband. She doesn’t know me at all. I Christmas-shopped last night.
“My sister lives here in Johnsonburg,” I say.
“I know,” Patty says.
And do you know, I want to say, that this same sister hates me? And for no reason. That when I’m in their house, I feel like I’m their good deed for the week. Like everything I say and am is odd, and they will raise their eyebrows at each other, purse censorious lips, every time I leave the room, at which point I cease to be.
Strong, loud voices sound outside. A car door slams. Then yelps and laughing. The front door is pushed open and a snowball sails over Bobby’s head, smashing against the far wall, sending muddy, slushy ice bits everywhere, slivers glinting on the fake snow underneath the Christmas tree.
Jessie’s mother turns to me. “See?” she says. She turns to Bobby. “See?”
The two men — for they are no longer living in boys’ bodies — walk into the funeral parlor that the room has just become, into the execution chamber. They will be offered no last meal. They’ll see no priest before they die.
“Sit down,” their father says. Bodies stiffened, the two men sit down, side by side on a love seat. Love seat. Love. Seat.
Jessie’s mother’s cellphone rings. There is a God after all. I don’t have a cellphone myself because if I did my sister would call me every Christmas Eve and say, “Where are you?” But I’m happy this sad mother has one. I’m happy for its ring.
We all are. Grateful, no matter if it is the DNC, the NRA, or a wrong number. We’ll pass the phone around and each one talk a long time with whoever’s calling.
Jessie’s mother says, “Where are you? … Yes, I’ll come. … Of course I want to come. … Stay there. … Don’t leave. … Are you warm enough? … Two hours. … An hour and a half. … Don’t leave.”
She clicks the phone off. “I love you.”
A hundred tons of tension have left the room, melted like the dirty snow, drying into little patches of salt and sand on the wood floor.
We all look at her, afraid to ask.
“It’s Kara. Jessie’s little girl. She wants to come back home. It’s been two years. Two years. She’s out by Stroudsburg. At a rest stop. On route 80. I’m going to pick her up.” She stands, but her knees buckle, and she sits again.
“The roads are terrible,” one of the boy-men says. “It’s all ice out there.”
“I don’t care,” she says. This time she rises, pulls her coat around her tightly, and without a word crosses to the door, and she is gone. We five sit, stunned I think, relieved somehow but not yet able to move on to whatever might be next.
One of the sons looks over, seeming to notice me for the first time. It’s clear he wants to ask somebody who I am.
“I’m nobody,” I say, then add, “I grew up here.”
“She’s your dad’s old girlfriend, don’t he wish,” Patty says. “He just about thought the world would end if he didn’t have her.” She turns toward the Christmas tree. “And then the world did end, but not because of her.”
Jessie’s mother opens the front door. “My truck won’t start,” she says. “It’s dead. It’s not going to start.”
“We’ll go,” one of the brothers says. “We’ll drive you. We got four-wheel drive and chains.”
She looks at them and tightens up her lips. She looks like a little girl.
“Let them take you,” their father says, his voice like stone.
“And what if they have another wreck?” she says.
“What if they don’t?” I say. “They’ll take you to Kara.”
I wouldn’t be at all averse to this life-risky drive tonight myself, but this is their drive.
This is their night. I’m not even in this story.
“I don’t have any Christmas to bring Kara back to,” the mother says suddenly. “I’m living in a studio apartment. I don’t even have a Christmas tree.” I think of the small tree I saw on Jessie’s grave.
“Come to my sister’s,” I say. “She’d love to have you. She has a big house. Lots of turkey. Lots of pies.”
“Bring her here,” Patty says. “She should come here.” Jessie’s mother turns to her.
“This is the only house in all the world where people think about Kara’s mother every day.” She sets the plate of cookies on the table. Lay your burden down. “The only place where every single person, if they had only one wish in all the world, would wish the exact same thing as Kara. Bring her here.”
The two men move toward the door. “I’ll warm the car,” one says.
The mother looks at me. I nod my head. “There is no other way to bring Kara home tonight,” I say. “It’s Christmas Eve. She’s waiting for you.”
“Come over tomorrow when you’re ready,” Patty says. “The girl will need to sleep. We don’t eat till four.”
“I can’t bring her here,” she says.
“You have to,” Bobby says. “We’ve already stuffed the bird. It’s 20 pounds.”
“Kara always liked the dark meat. Jessie only liked the white.”
“This bird’s got two legs, a pound of dark meat on each one.”
“This is crazy,” she repeats.
“Of course it is,” I say. “So what.” Jessie’s mother walks over to the door and buttons up her coat.
“Take these.” Patty hands her two heavy afghans. “For the girl.”
“Do you want to come tomorrow too?” Patty asks me in a sing-song, weary way, once the other three have gone out into the night, out to turn the world upside down, to rearrange the planets.
“Oh. Thanks. No,” I say.
I must be there tomorrow to go a few rounds with my sister. I must eat her turkey. I must drink her wine. And I wonder if I might interest her in a little story about life. About how people kill each other by accident, and how they forgive each other sometimes too. For the killing, at least, and sometimes maybe for other things too. And if they can’t forgive, well, they give each other rides in snowstorms when there’s nothing else to do.
When we were little girls we would wrestle with all our might. Fight like boys. Rolling on the ground. Like sisters do only in spirit when they are grown and married and no longer live in the same town, in the same universe. Tomorrow, we must wrestle one more time, fight with all our might, contend and pin each other to the ground till shouts of Uncle! fill the skies.
I stand up and move toward the door. “Oh, I just remembered. My car is at the cemetery.”
“Bobby will drive you. He’s been waiting 40 years for that.”
As it happens, Bobby’s car won’t start either. I call a taxi. I don’t even attempt explaining why I don’t call my sister. We all stand, waiting for it, in the silence.
The cab is warm and steamy. It smells like meatloaf. I slide into the backseat. “Where to?” the man says.
He adjusts the radio. The taxi skids to a stop at the light. He looks both ways, drives through.
“So. Aren’t you going to ask me why I’m going to the cemetery Christmas Eve,” I say.
“Nope,” he says. “I just figured you must have seen the star.”
He’s got me. Dead to rights. Who else but me would follow the star of Bethlehem in a taxi. We drive on in a silence as black and as deep as the night. I think the world has died.
Then just before we turn onto the boulevard, he begins to sing:
We three kings of Orient are…
Softly at first, then more loudly, singing verses I have never heard:
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.
And I find myself joining in on the refrain, in my skinny, bold soprano:
Oh-Oh, star of wonder, star of light,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.
We skid to a stop and the taxi makes the turn into the cemetery.
“There’s my car,” I say. “Right there.” I give him a handful of bills and open up the door.
And then I see it. Another car parked on the far side of mine. No lights on, but the exhaust is blowing breath, warm breath, steadily, into the cold, dark air. And there is just enough starlight on this nascent morning to let me see my sister, sitting in the car, waiting there for me.
Linda McCullough Moore is the author of the novel The Distance Between, the two story collections The Road Will Take Us Closer to the Moon and An Episode of Grace, and an essay collection, The Book of Not So Common Prayer. For more, visit lindamcculloughmoore.com.