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We can’t believe our father has had a wreck. He is a master of the road, a man at home in a car. He is a traveling salesman who clocks thousands of miles a month tracing Kentucky back roads, stocking grocery stores at dusty highway intersections in towns with strange and magical names: Horse Cave. Summer Shade. Oak Grove. Beaver Dam.
But here you are, in the middle of a summer day, racing through the living room to grab your trunk of Barbie clothes, when the phone rings and your mother answers it. You hear her say: “What? Oh, my lord.” You see her reach for the ladder back chair and slowly lower herself into it, as if she is dizzy and might fall. “Where is he? What happened?” You are frozen in place, watching silent tears roll down her white cheeks.
She hangs up the phone and turns to you. “Go find your brothers and sisters.” You rush out of the house even faster than you came in; you don’t even ask what happened; you know it is bad. You race up the sidewalk calling the names of your sisters and brother. They are playing with friends, but they see the terror in your face and come home, no questions asked.
“It’s daddy. Something happened.” That’s all you can say because you have no breath.
Your father is more at home in a car than in your house where his personal space consists of a low-slung vinyl chair with wooden arms by the TV and a nylon webbed lawn chair next to the grill under the carport where he goes to smoke and listen to the ball game on the radio. He is gone several days a week, seeking his fortune on the open road, charming storekeepers with his storytelling acumen, his good humor and handsome looks. He has a small company — one employee, himself — that buys wholesale health and beauty aids and sells them to small, independently owned grocery stores. On the road, he is free, his suntanned left arm dangling out the driver’s side window, fingers strumming the breeze.
On rare occasions, he takes one or two of the kids with him to make a run to Scottsville or Russellville to drop off a case of toothpaste or Bayer aspirin. You love these impromptu trips, the winding state and county highways with their hypnotic road signs: Do Not Pass. Pass With Care. Do Not Pass. Pass With Care.
Your father pulls on to the gravel parking lot of a small store and walks through the heavy swinging screen door as if he owns the place. He tells you to get yourself a drink out of the icebox. The pleasant store owner stretches and slaps your daddy on the back. He offers you a big, wet dill pickle and wraps it in a paper towel.
Driving home, you struggle to stay awake, your blood sugar crashing after two orange Nehis. You keep your eyes on the road, and on Daddy’s tip-tapping fingertips on the steering wheel, keeping time to a song on the radio.
Your mother explains that someone found your daddy and his car in a ditch out on Highway 31. He will be OK but has a bad shoulder injury that hurt so bad he couldn’t crawl up to the road. An ambulance is taking him to the hospital.
She piles all of you in her car and drives you to Grandaddy and Aunt Ida’s house across town where you will spend the night.
There are four rooms in your grandfather’s house, arranged in a square, all open to the other. In one room, your sisters share a double bed and you take the single bed in the corner. Your scratchy sheets smell of sunshine and bleach and a hot iron.
Grandaddy and your brother sleep in the big bed in the next room, and Aunt Ida makes herself a bed on the foldout sofa. The lights go out and the dark rooms are immediately filled with the syncopated tick-tock of the heavy wooden clock in Grandaddy’s room. You close your eyes and try to picture your daddy. He pulls out of the driveway in his long green car, a big smile on his face. He waves to you as he pulls away and you wave back, then slowly fade from sight in his rearview mirror.
You cannot sleep because of Grandaddy’s loud snoring and all the breath in those tight rooms. You hypnotize yourself to sleep, imagining black and white road signs along a tree-lined highway: Do Not Pass. Pass With Care.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.