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Alliance, TexasJuly 1983
I wanted a family. I wanted Joanne to be part of us, of our family. Cal, my husband, he wanted the same thing, at first. Somehow, all our reasons got lost. I was the last one to know that something had gone wrong with our plans. Once I found out, everything went to hell pretty fast.
By the time it all came clear to me, Joanne's 1980 Buick Le Sabre was down the hall in my bedroom, tipped headlong over my dresser. A steep embankment runs up beside our house to the highway. Joanne lost control of her car at the moment when her headlights would have flashed by our window. She was my closest friend. I don't remember a time before I knew her. She was as close as family. When she agreed to my plan, she became family. I still believe that.
The seconds after that accident were the most awful moments of my life, when Cal and I woke to the sounds of Jo's car crashing into our bedroom, crunching our wall like a Saltine cracker. Wood and paint sprayed everywhere, along with glass from the windows and picture frames. I had cuts in a dozen places on my body that I never felt.
My first thought was about the baby. Somehow I thought Joanne would be strong enough to get up and walk away. She'd stood up to her daddy for twenty-seven years; a car wreck shouldn't have been the end of it. But the baby, I didn't know if the baby could take something like that. Then I saw Joanne. I saw her bloody and broken through the car window and I just knew they were both lost.
I stayed in the room as long as I could, until the smell of gasoline and the sight of my friend turned my stomach inside out. I stayed while Cal went to get help and I tried to reach in and touch her, but warm blood was everywhere and I had to pull back. Every part of me was shaking.
After the police, the fire truck, and the ambulances all got to my house, I sat in my kitchen. I was trying to get away from the shouting, the thick air and, most of all, from the sight of Joanne. They said she was alive, but just barely. She probably wouldn't make it out of the car. It was more than I could handle. Sitting in my kitchen, I could block out everything else; only for a few seconds at a time, but just enough to hang on to my mind. I'd stare at my cigarettethe first I'd smoked in two yearslike it was the most important object in the world, some treasure, and push all the other images away. It would come back to me in no time; but a moment here and there kept me going, like catching your breath when you're too winded to move on.
Cal stayed in there all morning, talking to the police. He came in the kitchen once with the deputy to answer some questions with me.
"When was the last time you saw her?" the deputy asked Cal. I could hear the medical people in our room, trying to get Joanne out of the car. "She been here recently?"
"Yesterday afternoon," I answered for him. "She came over here."
I thought of her then, standing in my house, troubled by somethingboth of us unaware of the terrible things that would come so soon.
"Yeah," Cal told the deputy. "She was here when I got in from work."
She'd been at the house for an hour before he got home, working hard to say something to me, looking for words that wouldn't fit into the thoughts she had in her head.
"Joanne," I said. "Just tell me, whatever it is."
I put my hand on her arm and she jumped. We'd been familiar as twins for twenty years of my life. She'd never flinched once before. Then Cal came in the front door. She took one look at him and I didn't need any words to know what she couldn't say. It was my fault. I'd put them together. She left without another word to me or to him.
"Was there anything that made you think she was upset or angry?" the deputy asked. He was looking at me.
"Yeah," I said. Cal looked at the floor. "She never quite got it out, but I knew she was upset."
I looked out the side window of the kitchen, saw the steep rise that led up to where our side yard met the asphalt, the curve in the road before you get to our driveway. I saw the tracks in the tall grass where she'd left the highway, gone airborne. She hit the curve like a straightaway, they told me, never touching the brake. They said the accelerator might have stuck or she might have hit the wrong pedal when she was trying to brake. I couldn't think otherwise of her. My soul couldn't hold any other explanation; but I knew what the deputy and the rest of them were thinking. They were thinking that those things never really happen and this was never really an accident.
"Can you tell me anything else?" the deputy asked me.
Cal looked at me, nodded at me to go ahead.
"She was having a baby for us," I said. The cigarette shook in my fingers. I couldn't make it stop. A smear of blood from a cut I hadn't bothered to wash covered my hand, or maybe it was Joanne's blood. I didn't know.
"It's Cal's baby," I said.
The deputy looked up from his notepad. His whole face was a question.
"We'd asked her to have a baby for us. With us. I can't, you see. I can't have a baby. I told her to have it for me, with Cawith my husband. She'd be an aunt. A godparent."
The deputy looked down at his notepad again and scribbled. I couldn't see his face. Cal had walked to the den. He stood at the window with his back to me. A blinding sun, rising in the Texas sky, made him look dark, like a shadow standing alone.
The deputy got his voice back.
"Had something changed for her?" he asked. "When she talked to you. Was she thinking she didn't want to do it?"
"She'd changed her mind, I think. Not about the baby. She'd changed her mind about us, about Cal, I think."
Cal walked back to me. He rubbed his hand, light on my cheek, and I felt a tear I didn't know was there.
"You don't know what she was going to say," Cal told me.
"I can guess pretty well."
Cal looked as if he wanted to say more, but he stopped.
"We'd shared something, the three of us," he said, now talking to the deputy. "It was hard to figure out what we all felt. She didn't know what to do with it. Hell, I know I got confused. I think we all did."
Then he turned to me again.
"I love you," he said. "She loved you too. We didn't think about everything enough. How complicated the feelings would get."
His face was pulled in all different directions with painpain that I'd caused. In some ways, I might as well have been driving that Le Sabre this morning. I put it all in motion. Now I wanted her back, with or without that baby growing in her belly.
"How far along was she?" the deputy asked. "With the baby?"
"Almost five months," I said.
He looked almost sick, or disgusted, I couldn't read him that well.
"The accident," he managed, finally. He'd heard enough of our story. "Do you remember anything else about the accident?"
"The crashing noises seemed like they might have been a bad dream," I told him, "I woke up stunned and scared, my heart racing."
All I remembered was the hot exhaust, the smell of gas, all bearing in on my nose, choking me like a pillow pushed against my face. It took us both a second to collect our wits.
"Cal came around first. He scooted out of bed, out from in front of the car, and pulled me with him. The motor was still running and the car was lodged on my dresser. The motor kept running and running. It must have stopped sometime, but I don't remember when."
Cal started screaming. I didn't say this to the deputy, but I can hear it in my head if I listen. "Joanne! Oh Christ, Joanne!"
But Joanne was a mess and not in any shape to answer. Her face was mashed in on one side, no face at all, really, all blood and hair. And I stood there and looked at her like she was acting in a moviefrantic that the baby had gotten crushed, still hoping that Joanne would come to any minute. But she didn't come to. She didn't move.
"Cal tried to call for help, but the crash did something to our phone," I said. "He went to his work radio in the truck, got somebody at dispatch to call an ambulance."
I stayed in there as long as I could, until Cal got back. Then I had to leave, had to go to my normal-looking kitchen, a weak puppy hiding from thunder.
"Joanne never opened her eyes or anything. Not that I saw."
After I'd answered all of the officer's questions, one of the policemen, or maybe a paramedic, yelled for the deputy to come back down the hall. Cal ran after him. I stayed behind to think about everything we'd done. It sounded different, our story. Saying it all out loud to a stranger, all the details about the baby, made it sound wrong. I never saw it that way before.
I didn't want to think about what Joanne looked like as they pulled her out of the car. Like a coward, I left her there with them, the baby too. I left them both, sat at the breakfast table in my bathrobe staring at the yellow-colored wallpaper in my kitchen. That's when I knew I had to have a Salem Light. I went through every drawer in the kitchen to find the pack. Stale and wrong, it satisfied my fear.
Then I registered the solid ache of what it would mean to lose JoanneJo and the baby with her. She'd been with me nearly forever, lived behind me, almost all my years of growing up. Our backyards ran together like a playground and her room looked as familiar to me as my own. Her mama knew my favorite foods, my favorite colors, bought me clothes when she went shopping for Joanne. My mama French-braided Joanne's hair before school and taught her how to embroider on her jeans.
Joanne knew when Junior Evans kissed me and when Sean Latham first moved his hands to places that had been a secret to everyone, including me. Then there was Cal. She knew I wanted to marry him before I'd said itto him or to myself.
When they brought her down the hall of my house on a stretcher, when they said she was still alive, I yelled out something, I don't know what, some kind of prayer, like some crazed holy roller. I don't know where it came from. I'm not somebody God counts on for attendance.
I ran to her, planned to tell her how sorry I was, but I stopped when I got a good look. Blood, some fresh and some dried, covered her bandages and the still-familiar features of at least half her face. The skin on her arms and shoulders looked like old wall paint, dull and matte. She looked dead. I couldn't help thinking she'd rather be.
Cal stood in the hall and cried. Loud crying, like a child.
It wasn't until the ambulance drove off, until the road dust behind it conjured ghost images in the heat, that I realized they hadn't said anything about the baby. If Joanne was alive, what about the baby?
"The baby," I said to Cal. "What'd they say about the baby?"
He walked into the den, sat on the arm of the couch.
"There's a heartbeat," he said, his voice hoarse and spent. "That's all they know."