Celebrate Me Home
Stanley James stepped onto the bus, and without thinking, handed his ticket to the driver. He didn’t bother to kick the slush from his boots, though it caked up his pant legs and trimmed the edge of his long black overcoat. He didn’t feel the cold, but he saw it in the frosted windows, in the drained and dreary faces of his fellow passengers as he somehow found an empty seat. An aisle seat, but he didn’t mind. He hoped sleep would arrive quickly and continue uninterrupted during the eight hour trip down highway 29. He didn’t imagine the crumpled little man; curled up sleeping in a brown mottled fur coat beside the window, would disturb him.
Sleep snatched him as soon as the drone of the wheels began to hum away the miles west. Glass shattered, he swerved, blood, screams, the dog darting out of nowhere, a collision, a tree. All mixed up. The scenes played over and over, out of sequence. A sudden swerve woke him with a start. Stan was back on the bus, afraid to close his eyes. The crumpled little man rolled over in his sleep and wrapped his arm through Stan’s, laid his head on his shoulder, “Are we there yet?” but he began to snore quietly again before Stan could answer. He smelled of incense, something woody, familiar, something he couldn’t place, and wet dog. Exhaustion took Stan again. No screams, no blood, no shattering glass, just deep uneventful sleep.
He woke again to find the crumpled little man handing him a cup of coffee. “I wasn’t sure what you took, so I grabbed a little of everything.” He pulled his coat pocket wide revealing creamers, packets of sugar, sweet and low and several packs of Hostess donuts. “I didn’t want to wake you. You had such a calm look on your face, and the driver said he was only stopping for a moment. I hope you didn’t need to pee?” He reclaimed his seat by the window and piled his booty into his lap. “Help yourself.”
“Where are we?” Stan sipped the coffee and instinctively reached for a creamer.
"Still a few hours out.” The little man popped a powered donut in his mouth whole.
“Stan. I’m Stan.” Stan said adding a pink packet of sweetener to his coffee. “What’s your name?”
“Hard to say.” He said with a light-hearted spray of powdered sugar. “I don’t quite remember.” Stan gave him a quizzical look. “I’ve tried. I’ve wracked by brain. Just can’t seem to remember. I’ve got some money. No wallet though. Driver said my ticket is to Carthage. Just kind of figure someone there will recognize me. Donut?” He offered Stan a donut. “You’re heading to Carthage aren’t ya? Do you know me? Last thing I really remember was waking up next to you on this bus.”
“You seem familiar, but no, your face doesn’t ring a bell. I don’t live there though. I was just heading to see in-laws.”
“Before the wreck?” The man asked. Stan looked surprised.
“You talk a lot in your sleep. And that looks like blood on your shirt. Are you feeling better now?”
“Yes, thanks.” Stan did feel better, though he couldn’t imagine how. Probably cause they were still several hours out. “So you can’t remember your name?”
“I’m sure I must have a name. We all have a name. Don't we?” The man stared out the window. “Until then I suppose you can call me whatever you’d like.”
“Wouldn’t you rather choose a name for yourself?”
“I wouldn’t have the faintest idea how?” The contented young man said devouring more donuts.
“How ‘bout Roddy? I had a little brother Roddy.” Stan said in that dreamy, lost in memory sort of way.
“Roddy. Yeah, Roddy. I like that.” So Roddy became Roddy.
“Do you want to talk about it?” The new Roddy asked.
“I don’t think so.” Stan answered.
“Plenty of time for that.” Roddy pressed his nose on the frosty window. They rode quietly, but Stan had no sense of time. The snowy fields erased any landmarks he may have recognized had he been paying attention. He could feel Carthage growing closer as the pounding in his chest grew louder and the ache in his stomach more severe.
“Your wife?” Roddy asked.
“Excuse me?” Stan replied startled out of a daydream.
“Did you lose your wife?” Roddy prodded.
“I didn’t lose her. I know where she is. I know where my son and daughter are as well.” He slammed his fist against the armrest. Roddy grabbed Stan’s hand, it was cold. Roddy’s was unusually warm.
“I’m so sorry.” He said with tears in his eyes.
“Couldn’t be helped. It was icy. A dog out of nowhere. I swerved. I swerved. A tree.” Roddy held Stan’s hand harder.
“You can’t blame yourself. It wasn’t your fault.” Roddy consoled.
“I swerved!” Stan pulled his hand away.
“It wasn’t your fault.” Roddy said timidly.
“Fucking dog!!” Stan barked causing the old woman a few seats ahead to turn and give him a disapproving look.
“It wasn’t your fault.” Roddy said again. “It wasn’t your fault you lived.” He turned back to the window. “Things happen. That’s all. Things happen.”
Stan wanted to scream, at Roddy, at the dog, at the universe, but he didn’t. Roddy leaned back against him like a three year old might. “It’s no one’s fault.” Stan’s scream came out only as a deflated sigh. “Have you thought about how you are going to tell them?” Roddy asked.
“Only a million times. Haven’t thought of one yet. How the hell do you tell a mother her child is gone, her grandchildren… her life.”
“Don’t worry Stan. She’ll know. Mother’s always know. It's instinct I think. Does that sound right? Instinct?”
They pulled into the station, retrieved Stan’s bags, his wife and kid’s bags as well, full of brightly wrapped packages. Roddy offered to help. “Are you ok? Where are you going to stay tonight?” Stan asked.
“I don’t know. I guess I was hoping someone would be here to meet me. I guess not.”
“Why don’t you come with me? I could use the company.” Stan said trying to hide the pleading in his voice.
“As long as you don’t think I’ll be in the way?”
“I think I could use someone in the way.”
“I’ve got nowhere else to go.”
The normalcy of the scene was almost more than Stan could bear. Christmas lights lined the streets and houses, illuminating snowmen, sleds, and all the promises of a holiday that would go unfulfilled. He made his way reluctantly toward the handmade wreath on the welcoming door, Roddy tagging behind carrying the luggage of gifts that would need to be donated, clothes given to Goodwill, bags of unfulfilled lives.
“Stan! Where have you been? We expected you hours ago?” Clare, his mother-in-law, emerged from the kitchen wiping her hands on the apron Katie had given her last Christmas. “Claire”. She hugged Stan and immediately stepped back. A mother knows.
“What happened? Where’s Katie? Where are the kids? Allen! Allen, get in here!” She called to her husband the panic rising in her voice.
“Claire. Claire. I’m so sorry.” Stan began to cry.
“No. No. Don’t say it. I don’t want to hear it! Allen where are you!”
“Claire there was an accident.”
“No! No! Katie, where’s Katie!”
“Claire.” It was all Stan could think to say.
“No! No! No!” Claire screamed. “It Christmas! God wouldn’t do this to me! Katie! Where’s Katie!” She began to beat on Stan’s chest as he stood and took it stoically. She collapsed to her knees continuing to beat on Stan. Roddy set the bags beside the pink plastic Christmas tree and helped Claire to her feet. Silently he led her to the kitchen leaving Stan to face Allen alone. Allen appeared from the dining room dragging an oxygen tank beside him. He sat in his well-worn chair.
“The kids?” He asked breathlessly. Stan just shook his head. “Are you alright?”
“No.” Stan said.
“What happened?” Allen sucked noisily on his oxygen mask.
“Icy road, lost control, hit a tree.” Stan reported like reading a headline.
“Where are they?” Allen wheezed.
“Good. Quality place. Muhlbach. Good. For god’s sake, take off your coat. You’ll catch your death.”
Stan took off his coat as Roddy returned from the kitchen with a cup of tea for Allen and a cup of coffee for Stan. “How is she?”
“She’s braising a ham.” Roddy returned to the kitchen.
“Should we go?” Allen wheezed.
“They said they’d call.”
“Yes. These things take time.”
Roddy returned from the kitchen and sat on the floor at Stan’s feet. “Claire is setting the table. Give her a minute.”
“And who might you be?” Allen asked.
“Roddy. I think. I’m not real sure.”
“Well, that may be a story we’ll have to sort out later.” Allen said. Claire returned from the kitchen wearing the coat Katie had gotten her a few holiday’s past.
“I’m going for a walk. I have to get out. Stan, don’t let the ham burn.”
“I’ll go with you.” Roddy jumped up. “I’d like to see the town.”
“Suit yourself. Put this scarf on. It’s cold out.” Clair ripped open a Christmas package labeled “For Allen Jr. from Santa”, and wrapped a long hand-made crocheted scarf around Roddy’s neck. “We’re going to walk down to town. Come find me if you hear anything.”
“Of course, Claire. Of course.” Stan said rising. “Claire…”
“Don’t Stan. Don’t say anything. I don’t think I could bear it. Come on Ruddy. Let’s go.”
“Roddy.” Stan corrected her, but Roddy looked at him not to push the issue. He wasn’t sure if it was his name anyway, it really didn’t matter. Claire took Ruddy’s hand and left the house.
“Give her time. We all need time.” Allen wheezed. “I wasn’t sure if I’d make it to Christmas. Who could have ever expected this? I imagine it’s the last thing you expected.” Stan nodded and began to cry. “Did they suffer? Don’t answer that. Suffering is all relative isn’t it?” Allen sucked on his oxygen mask. They sat quietly. “Some Christmas, huh?”
Claire and Roddy returned only after a few minutes. “It’s too cold out. There‘re too damn many Christmas decorations in this neighborhood. It’s tacky. Have they called? No? Ruddy, come help me in the kitchen. We have to eat.”
The phone rang. No one seemed to want to answer it. It rang, and rang again. “Someone answer the Goddamn phone!!” Claire screamed from the kitchen.
“Hello. Yes. This is Stan James. Yes. Yes. We’ll be right there. Thank you.” He hung up.
“Allen, are you coming? It’s awfully cold out. Are you sure?” Claire threw on her coat and grabbed her purse.
“I’m coming.” He said sternly.
“Stan get his big coat out of the closet. I’ll put the dinner in the oven to keep warm. Stan, you drive.” He tried his best to hide his fear. “Stan. You drive. I’m too upset. Allen is in no shape and we don’t even know if Ruddy has a license.”
Fortunately the funeral home was only a few minutes away. Three open caskets, one large, two smaller were arranged in the viewing room. No one said a word. Claire sobbed holding onto Ruddy’s arm. Stan steadied Allen. Fifteen minutes seemed to be more than any could stand. Finally, Roddy whispered reverently, “Their beautiful.”
They wordlessly left the scene that would remain with Stan each waking moment of the remainder of his life, and invade his dreams as well. The stairs and sidewalk leading to the Funeral home were icy so Roddy offered to run get the car. As he ran across the street a bus hit him. Claire fortunately collapsed causing a slight concussion that would forever remove the events of that day. Stan ran and cradled Roddy’s crumpled body in his arms and sobbed. He could smell that woody scent, and wet dog. The driver knelt beside him, “I swerved.” Allen panted into his oxygen mask and realized how much he loved his son-in-law.