“What’s a cemetery?” The insistent question, asked multiple times to penetrate the argument between radio music and the roar of open window wind, comes from Judy from the backseat, the unfiltered older sister, who sits to my right and behind our mother in the front seat with the baby on her lap.
All four windows of the car are cranked all the way down. From the middle of the backseat the wind hits me from both sides, almost taking my breath away and whipping my long stringy hair in a circle around my head, except for the row of inch-long bangs high up on my forehead. I assume this is the purpose of bangs. Daddy’s tanned arm hangs out the driver’s side front window, two fingers pinching his lit cigarette. I am five, and already addicted to nicotine from all the second hand smoke in our house. His other arm, the pale one, steers the car. I watch his wrist hang over the wheel and know this is how I want to look if I ever drive a car, if I’m ever tall enough to see over the dashboard.
To my left sits the brother, called ‘my son’ by our mother, a boy with huge dark eyes and curly brown hair who professionally wears the grin of it wasn’t me like he invented denial. He has the other window, the one that used to be mine (back when Mommy’s lap was his) because if he sits in the middle he’ll make Judy scream. And if she sits in the middle she can’t breathe. And if Jimmy makes Judy scream, Daddy can’t think, so he can’t drive, so we go home instead of wherever the six of us are trying to go. Jimmy fears me, for some reason, so it’s just logical for our exhausted parents to use me as the human blocker, Switzerland, a dependable source of peace. But not today.
Mommy somehow turns her long elegant neck around to answer Judy’s question and adds her voice to the noise. “A cemetery is where you go when you die.”
The pile of plastic flowers on my lap drops to the floor of the car. Judy scrambles down off her seat to scoop them up. We had a fight about carrying them, well she had a fight. I’m Switzerland so the pile was placed on my lap as her punishment for shoving Jimmy and running down the street with the flowers instead of getting in the car. Now the flowers are fair game. In our family if you drop something, or get up from your seat, or leave a half-eaten banana (if we have any) while you go to the bathroom, you lose it. The vultures descend. I didn’t care about the flowers when she fought for them earlier and I sure don’t care now that I know where we’re going and why.
No one responds to Mommy. Maybe everyone is shocked. I look around and change my mind: nobody heard her but me.
The car is going too fast. Even if it’s a holiday and it’s what you’re supposed to do, I do not want to go the cemetery. Daddy’s big blue car usually takes us to the grocery store or Gram’s. If we’re good in the car with Daddy while Mom goes in the store with the baby we can have a banana. On the way to Gram’s we beg Daddy to stop when we see the chestnut trees in the huge park, but he only stops once in fifty trips, because the other times the chestnuts aren’t ready. At Gram’s we get tight soft hugs and wet kisses and we run around her house, inside and out. One summer we went to the fair in this car. On Saturdays in summer we go to the lake. We stop for potato chips and cherries and cigarettes and soda on the way. We play all day and get a sunburn and bury cherry pits in the dirty sand. We all fall asleep in the backseat like puppies on the way home, unbelted because there’s no seatbelt law yet. Once we almost went to the drive-in movie to see Bambi, but Daddy pretended we were bad when he didn’t want to sit in the long traffic line and took us home. Just like Jimmy pretends he doesn’t like what’s for dinner every night so he can have cereal. Why is Memorial Day a holiday anyway? Judy asked Mommy what memorial meant this morning, but I didn’t hear the answer because Jimmy dropped his peanut butter toast on the floor and demanded Captain Crunch. For some reason that made the baby cry, which started another blast of noise.
I do not want to go to the cemetery.
I smack Jimmy’s leg and he swats me away like a flea. I grab his arm and pull him to me. He sees I’m crying. I stare into his infinite eyes, panic rising, and before I lose my breath I whisper, “We’re going to the cemetery.” He nods and kneels up to hang his head out the window like a dog.
I yank him down and whisper in his ear, “There’s dead people. At the cemetery.” His eyes grow even wider before his face turns purple and crumples.
He gasps, “Dead people. The cemetery,” and starts shaking his head violently back and forth in anger. Snot is already dripping from his nose. Jimmy always gets me. Maybe that’s why he fears me.
The car whizzes through the turns of the crazy road while I sob beside my little brother in the backseat. Normally we put our hands up and scream with glee as the sharp turns throw us in a kid heap from one side of the car to the other, back in the carefree days of no seatbelts. Only Judy is squealing.
At a red light at the top of the hill the roaring wind takes a rest, and when mom finally turns around to check on us she sees her two middle children quietly sobbing. When I see her see me, I release the instinctive reaction to a mother’s attention; I open my mouth to a square and sob from my soul.
“Jim. Pull over.”
We stand in a line on the cracked sidewalk, a staircase of heads, the four-year-old, then me, then the six-year-old. By now Judy has joined the sobbing without knowing why. I haven’t been able to speak. Daddy squats and Mommy kneels before us. Behind them, I see the baby. She’s standing on the seat looking out the open window, seriously close to adding her voice to the fray. Seeing the baby makes me wail even louder. I don’t want her to die. Ever.
Jimmy has found his breath and he’s yelling, “Laurie (gasp) Laurie (gasp).” Over and over. This helps our parents understand that I started this. The victim always sobs the perpetrator’s name. They both focus on me. Daddy holds my shoulders with both crooked hands. I grab his muscled forearms and feel a little better. I try to take a breath through my hiccups. When I focus on his blue eyes, I crumple again into sobs. I don’t want him to die. Ever. He pulls me to his chest. They wait while I sob.
When I cry myself dry, and finally lift my head, my family encircles me on the ground. Mommy holds the baby on her hip as she kneels on the concrete. It’s Mommy’s voice that almost sends me over the wall again.
“Laurie. Tell us. What’s wrong? What happened?” She cups my chin in her hand. The baby reaches out and pats my cheek.
Mommy’s dark eyes match mine and Jimmy’s. I know I’ll look just like her one day. I try to speak.
“I don’t… I don’t want… I…” and I’m sobbing again. Jimmy joins in sobbing, but he can speak while he cries, so he starts to plead our case.
“We don’t want to…” he begins, his eyes are wild with fear, and he is overcome by the aching need to square his mouth and howl. Everyone watches, holding their breath, waiting to learn what thing must be avoided.
Finally we say together, “We don’t want to… DIE!”
We fall on our parents in a fresh wave of terror, but I feel a sliver of relief. We’ve laid the problem before our protectors. They’ll know what to do. Either we’ll all live, or we’ll all die together. It’s not up to me.
Judy catches the fear virus. She didn’t seem to know we were going to the cemetery to die. Now she’s crying for real. She’s fresh, at the beginning of the cry, and we all wait for hers to pass so we can have a family meeting. The sky suddenly opens up in a steady drizzly sun shower. Our parents usher us back into the car.
The seats are hot. The windows are still all the way down and rain drips in on the people near them. I’m dry in the middle.
Mommy begins. “Laurie, look at me.”
“I know you don’t want to die.”
I nod. I feel vigorous nodding from both sides. Daddy smiles and stops smiling in a blink. I didn’t miss the smile.
I look at him and whisper, “I don’t want any of you to die.” It’s the core of my fear—unfathomable life without them. He just nods.
“We’re not going to die,” Mommy insists.
“Yes. We are.”
“But not today,” Daddy helps.
“We will. If we go to the cemetery. Mommy said so. ‘A cemetery is where you go when you die.’”
Their three oldest children sit silently in the backseat, watching them look at each other, deep into each other, and decide without speaking what must be done about this crisis.
To their credit, my parents did not laugh just then. They stored my fear and my literal logic pressed into the pages of their Book of Laurie to take out and examine later, after I was safely tucked in bed, to marvel at the developing people occupying the tiny bodies of their children. As all parents do. But they did heed my warning and turned the car around and took us all home, where we didn’t even start to die for another quarter of a century.