The Semi-Tragedy of the Lornes
The Lornes were, above all, car people. They were family-oriented. They were charitable, easy to get on with, and humble. They weren’t on TV every night, loudly hawking their cars in low quality videos with bad sound and terrible slogans. They were native sons and daughters of Clairsville, but then again, so was everyone else who lived in there. And everyone disliked them, just a bit, though they were often hard pressed to say it. Not because of anything intrinsically unlikeable about the Lornes, but because that was how things worked in small towns like theirs. Perhaps that’s why no one liked the Lornes -- they had simply lived there for so long that there was little else to feel but good old fashioned animosity. It would have been easier than simply getting along, and a lot less interesting. Plus, the Lornes were black.
Last Easter half of the Lornes got hit by a Mack Truck. They were on the way back from Easter Mass: Mr. Lorne, Aunt Mattie, Grandma Greta, Uncle Lloyd, Tyler, Jackie, Suzie Jr. in the trunk, and Little Benny, who was not so little anymore and called shotgun. The other half, the secular half, was at home when it happened, hiding eggs for the children to find when they returned. Billy Walker, the ex-felon and EMT, delivered the news that morning, personally. Had he waited all they would have had to do was turn on a TV -- where it played 24/7, loudly and clearly. This small and basic irony was not lost on the remaining half of the Lornes. In fact, it’s probably the only thing they let themselves think of.
* * *
There are petals scattered across the floorboards for Baby Jasmine to find. But she has seen them before, in her backyard, where the honeysuckles command much more attention and the grass is fit for rolling and playing. She is bored of them. So she slides along the hard and uncomfortable floor with caterpillarian giggles and sighs. She is shushed, but the sound means nothing. With a frown, she discovers once more the slivers of magnolia along the floor. They seem to glimmer like broken glass on her black, puffy dress and skin.
A stark chorus of movement startles Jasmine, and she begins to cry. She is taken up and led away from her petals. Yes Jasmine. Now, now is the time to cry. Now is the time to be sad. She grips and tugs and cries and feels the trembling hands on her hair. She is turned around, roughly and abruptly, and it is only then that she notices the magnolias, the petals bursting with apoplectic beauty, that adorn the altar. As the priest raises his ash coated thumb from her forehead, she giggles, and is shushed.
* * *
The Town of Clairsville had no idea what to do when the cross on the hill overlooking 87 came down. Rumor had it that the first people in the valley just stumbled across it, in the middle of savage country. Others said that it had been put there as a headstone for the death of a wealthy benefactress, built by her grieving husband. These stories were lies and everyone knew them as such – the cross had been put up there by the mayor of Clairsville during the Civil War to remind people of their civil and secular duty to own slaves, and it had been renovated by the town’s churches regularly ever since. But the townspeople pretended not hear any of this because they liked the stories better, and they sold guidebooks.
No matter what its origin, it had been up there for decades, with the occasional new 2x4 in the stand and a new right pegging board installed after a tree fell on it during an afternoon storm. It was thirteen feet tall and just visible from the highway, more noticeable because of the lack of trees surrounding it and less because of the cross itself. It was a crutch to the commuters, who gauged their trip, and what was left of it, by its presence. The Presbyterian church was built so that it’s thick frame watched over the pews through a skylight. It had become a ritual of the highschoolers to screw under it and a favorite spot to get high. The students loved it, believing themselves to be the ironic ones, the rebellious generation. Still they wondered why it always seemed like the first place their parents came looking for them.
So, when Mr. Posting called the police one morning to tell them that the cross had come down, there was a considerable and collective outcry. Parents told their children in hushed voices, and gave second helpings of dessert. Armchair preachers and pundits blamed the election. A group of young atheists (more agnostics really, though they hated the label), what few of them there were, tried to throw a little party, but ended up rewatching Back to the Future and calling it an early night. The Clairsville Chamber of Commerce called an emergency meeting the next morning, agreeing nervously that they should host another meeting. This time the entire town was invited.
The entire town attended. Two weeks later, there was a brand new cross up on the hill overlooking 87. The atheists meant to fight it, but on screen Marty McFly was turning back the clock, and flirting with his momma, and they knew they wouldn’t win anyway, so why the hell bother?
* * *
“Didya here what happened to the Lornes?”
* * *
One for Jackie, one for Bill. One for Tyler, and one for Grandpa Phil. Grandpa Phil (known unanimously throughout Clairsville as Pops) hadn’t been to church with his wife in years. He had long ago stopped caring for the new Priest, and he cared even less for the ladies with the well-endowed headgear who tittered about his absence. He didn’t need organs and stained glass to talk to God. He had figured out how to do that just fine on his own, scrubbing airstrips in the Pacific. There his prayers got an atomic bomb dropped and, more importantly, got Pops sent home. It was a miracle for which he was always secretly ashamed.
When he returned back to Clairsville there was a parade for the veterans to which he and the other black soldiers weren’t invited. He went to work instead, down at Claycomb’s Body Shop, and, as luck would have it, he met his future wife: Miss Greta Claycomb. He hadn’t even prayed for that one. But when she jumped into his lap that yellow afternoon, as the heroes marched outside, it was the end of Claycomb’s and beginning of Lorne’s, though only Pops knew it at the time. He had his eye on the shop for years since he started working there before the war. His job back then had been scrubbing the floors, occasionally getting a chance to check someone’s oil or overcharge them to fix a broken headlight. That night, while sorting through a new shipment of lugnuts, Pops prayed again, this time in thanks, and this time without the slippery, tepid shame that came when mixing religion and war.
The following years live in the memory of Clairsville somewhere between legend and infamy, depending on who you ask, and what time of day you ask them. On Sundays, and during most other days from breakfast until lunch, the story of their marriage and rise to riches is “tender,” “heartwarming,” and thoroughly “inspiring; to think that society once wouldn’t let two people like that get married like normal adults!” Yet on the evenings and at the end of conversations, when their words had the most power (for they were quickly forgotten), Clairsville distrusted them, and their shop. But, despite their distrust, or maybe because of it, they kept buying cars, and they kept getting them fixed at one of the Lorne’s two convenient locations. They wanted a reason not to, but they never got one, and that was almost worse. Still, the next morning, as they received communion along with the rest of Clairsville, all anyone wanted to know was if they were bringing their signature spinach casserole to the Church potluck, and if they could hopefully get a piece before it was all gone this time.
Pops had a jelly bean in his mouth when the doorbell rang. He had been eating them all day, along with the occasional chocolate egg. He kept chewing as Billy Walker told him what happened, and then he returned to hiding the eggs, saying a prayer as he tucked a bright, pink plastic egg behind the sofa. Without thinking, he put the stir-fry under the bed in the guest room, next to Little Benny’s chocolate rabbit. None for Jackie, none for Bill. None for Tyler, and all for Grandpa Phil.
* * *
Boy: So... How do you like the place? (Gestures at concrete basement floors, partygoers.)
Girl: Its nice.
Boy: Yeah, my parents are both denists, they’re out in Albuquerque until Tuesday... My dad’s giving some stupid talk on root canals...
Girl: Ha. Cool. Cool cool cool...
Nervous laughter. Brief attempt at Carey Grant impersonation. More nervous laughter. Weight of delicious female curves transferred to feet. Panic.
Boy: You hear about that thing on 87 last weekend?
Beat. Hope. Shots being poured. Shots being passed.
Girl: With that -black- family right? It’s just so terrible, I can’t even imagine how the rest of that family feels. And poor Little Benny.
Boy: The Lornes, yeah. Poor Little Benny, with all those scars and all. Guess he’s the lucky one. You know... (Beat. Faintly successful Carey Grant impersonation triggers internal celebration) I was sitting next to them, that day at mass.
Girl: You were? Oh my god that’s just... that’s crazy. (Reception of shots. Rethinking of evening plans.)
Boy: I mean, I was a pew or two back. (Consumption of shot. Another beat. Coughs.) But something felt odd, you know? Had this weird feeling, right in the pit of my stomach. (Shakes head. Wink at buddy in the corner.)
Girl: Like you could feel what was about to come. (More shots poured. Weight of delicious curves shifts closer.)
Boy: Exactly. (Reception of shots) Funny thing is, I shook his hand too.
Girl: (Eyes widen. Legs uncross, open.) No way.
Boy: (Severe nod) I got to look into his eyes. Might have been the last person to do so. Maybe ever. And you know what he said to me?
Noses touch. Dazzling Carey Grant smile. Consumption of Shot. Taste of success.
Taste of bile.
Laughter. Weight of delicious female curves released. Blackout.
* * *
Bill Walker was the first person to tell everyone about the Lorne’s, because Bill Walker had been the first one on the scene. He was always the first one on the scene, a perennial first responder, and thus he was one of the most popular EMT’s in town. He started volunteering ten or twelve years ago as part of a community service deal he got for carrying unregistered firearms, a couple of pistols he had inherited from his father when he caught cancer and died back in the nineties. His dad had never felt a need to tell the government about them, and goddammit neither would Bill. But he had felt a need to shoot them, unloading clip after clip in his backyard every day for a week after Mr. Walker passed them on, until the neighbors could no longer sleep, and their pity ran out, and they called the cops.
And so Bill became an EMT, and responded to calls, and was the first person there when the Lorne’s hit that Mack truck. He told the story for the first time at a Clairsville High baseball game. There was a moment of silence before the game, the third this season, and as it was ending Bill leaned over and relayed the whole thing to his sometimes friend, Tim Gardner:
“Did I ever tell you I was there? I remember it like it was yesterday, you know? I know people always say that, but I really do. I was sitting at home actually, just gotten in from work and all, and of course the goddamn pager goes off about as soon as I turn it on. Suz was making stir-fry -- you ever have Suz’s stir-fry, the one she brought to our reunion, with the chicken and cashews and shit? Good stuff, you should come over for dinner next time she makes it, catch up and all. Anyway she hadn’t even finished browning the chicken, so I knew I had a bit of time to take a call. Plus I had this real funny feeling about this one, right in the pit of my stomach, you know? Couldn’t tell you why.
So the next thing I know I’m in the car on my way out to 87, trying to get some details or something just so I know what to expect. Believe it or not, we don’t get a whole lot of calls around here, so I got pretty excited. Thing is, I was the first one to show up! So here I am, with this mess on my hands, and I’m the only one there to take care of it. What a mess too. That Mack truck did a number on that van, let me tell you. So I was standing there, just trying to figure out where to even begin, and it was so quiet. Real, real quiet. Which is odd, you know. It should have been louder.
But at this point I’m still pretty far away and all. I couldn’t really drive up or anything, there was too much shit in the way. So I get out, and I’m still the only one there. I don’t even hear the sirens, which is odd, because they’re usually there by this point and I can kinda sit back. So I head around to the front of the Mack, and the first thing I notice is that my feet are covered in oil. Just covered in the stuff, you know? And it’s doing that thing oil does when it hits the light just right, flashing this whole set of colors all over the road. Would have been pretty I guess, in different circumstances. Guess it still was...
Anyways, I can’t see anything into the truck. For all I know a ghost could have been driving it. So I move on, you know, check out the other car. So I finally find the van, most of it I guess. And, its. It’s pretty bad, you know. Gruesome stuff man. Real gritty. I mean I couldn’t even really tell it was the Lornes, probably wouldn’t have either, ‘til I went around to the trunk. Can you believe it? They had a kid back there. A kid in the trunk. Probably never even knew there was another car on the road... Anyways, by now I could finally hear the sirens, a lot of them too. Not sure why they really needed them though. No one was going anywhere in a hurry, you know what I mean...
So I figured the least I could do was go tell the Lorne’s, what was left of them at least. So you know what I did? I went right home, and I grabbed Suz’s stir-fry, and I brought it right over. Felt like the least I could do, you know? I heard the Benny kid actually pulled through, I guess he got thrown out the window and rolled off into the woods. Seemed like he was actually doing pretty fine when the paramedics got there.”
Billy wrapped up his story just in time for the first pitch. It was a strike, and his friend whistled through his fingers. Clairsville eventually pulled out a tough 3-2 win, and Billy left his friend for the night, each of them promising to meet sometime soon for diner. Billy drove home slowly, taking the highway. When he got home he kissed Suz on the cheek, grabbed himself a beer, pulled out his Father’s favorite pistol, and went into the backyard.
* * *
Old Man Carmichael was not an old man, but he looked like one. It was a carefully cultivated image, brought about by a carefully cultivated mind, eventually becoming so familiar a routine that it became a habit, which became a personality. Through the years his façade of musty, aged intelligence had somehow become a sort of real intelligence, though even Old Man Carmichael couldn’t tell you how or why. He probably believed that there was a lesson in this, but, by the time half the Lorne family got flattened, he was far too wise to pursue it.
Every Sunday morning, from 10 to 2, Old Man Carmichael played guitar at the Spanish Moon Bar and Grille, a dumpy joint off Route 13 with wood paneling covering the bar and an owner who pretended to smoke cigars to increase the “mood.” It was here that Old Man Carmichael first saw the crash on the old TV behind the bar, the oil and metal littered around frantically listless firefighters, policeman, and EMT’s, the sirens whirring with playful abandon. There were news teams everywhere, their wires, satellites and floodlights blurring the line between wreckage and coverage. Off to the side, an anchor for a rival station, Channel 6, had her finger up her nose. It wasn’t for long, shorter even than the brief, sidelong glance she gave her nail before brushing it casually along her khaki pantleg.
“You catch that Corning?” Behind the bar Corning, completely engrossed, took an accidental inhalation and sputtered.
“Catch what? The crash? Yeah, I’m telling you that’s a real shame. Real shame. Mr. Lorne had just started buyin’ a few drinks around here too...” He stopped to cough again. “I mean, we were just starting to develop a real rapport and all. It’s a tragedy, ain’t it? Real shame...” Corning started wiping down the bar, hoping that that would be the end of the conversation. Behind him, the anchor went for another pass -- right nostril -- with a speed and deftness that reminded Old Man Carmichael of kitchen flies. This time he laughed, arpeggiatting an A diminished as he chortled. Corning attempted a nervous chuckle in return and coughed.
“Missed it again.”
“That lady off to the right, you see her?” Corning squinted and shrugged his shoulders. Again the finger struck, left nostril this time, though her turned and painted cheeks made it almost imperceptible. Old Man Carmichael kept laughing, and Corning slid the stogie to his lips, ever so lightly.
“Yeah... oh that’s that Miss Copper lady from channel 6. Guess she’s out in the field now. Never really was a big fan of her myself though. I’ve had a thing for Miss Cyndi Graham here since Middle School.” He winked. “Guess we can turn it on if you have a thing for blondies, eh Mr. Carmichael?” He flipped to Channel Six where the anchor was just now handing things over to the young Miss Copper, radiantly lit in blues, reds, and subtle golds. Apparently, she had just been driving by after it happened. She sighed and allowed herself one simmering, saccharine, tear before unpacking the tragedy for the fourth time that afternoon.
“A real shame, ain’t it?”
“Not for Miss Copper.”
“I mean for the Lornes, they lost half their family.”
“And Miss Copper got a promotion.”
“Yeah I guess... A real shame though, ain’t it?”
Old Man Carmichael only laughed a brief laugh and struck another chord, a C. He had wanted to play a Leonard Cohen song, but, knowing Corning was the only one listening, opted instead for another Dylan.
* * *
Under the guidance of older siblings and teen movies, the students at Clairsville High discovered the Cross on the Hill. There, overlooking the dead straight stretch of 87, they brought their dates, their beer, and their bud. It wasn’t difficult to get to, all one had to do was take the logging road off the highway, making sure not to miss the hard right turn a few miles after The Stump, and then double back along the creek up to the clearing. It was widely regarded as the premier destination in Clairsville to lose ones virginity, and, knowing this, Clarissa agreed to double back along the creek with Little Benny Lorne. For reason she felt obvious, Clarissa offered to drive, though Little Benny declined, opting to pick her up around 10 instead.
Clarissa was no longer a virgin, and neither was Little Benny. They each knew this about the other, but despite this little lie, an omission, really, they were both excited to be in each other’s company. They had hatched the plan in Chemistry, leaning over the Bunsen burners in between reactions and measurements. They hadn’t needed to make such a big fuss over it, they would see each other soon after in the hallway, but Little Benny knew (and rightly so), that he would make a much bigger impression in the lab, where the ramblings of their teacher in the background gave his whispered proposal a tantalizing indecency.
Not that he needed it, Clarissa thought, looking at him like a carpenter looks at a wobbling table leg. She couldn’t remember when she had first become interested in Little Benny, sometime in May, maybe April. She was a year older than him, a fact that would have been a turn off in other circumstances. They were driving out along the creek now, slipping underneath the Spanish moss with the top down. In the headlights, the magnolias were caught flashing in the high-beams like bulbs. Little Benny slipped his hand off of the stick and onto Clarissa’s thigh. Clarissa gripped his hand and searched for the sadness that must be in his eyes. The car stopped.
Little Benny smiled and Clarissa returned it. Then he got out of the car and grabbed a blanket and a bottle of wine he had stolen from the cellar cabinet, though there was no one left in the house that would have drunk it. Clarissa brought an old camping lantern, but Little Benny told her to leave it -- he would leave the car lights on instead. Clarissa giggled as he opened the door for her, taking her hand like royalty, making a big show out of it. That was the only time she saw the scars, leading her in front of the factory fresh sports car, where the yellow light could finally catch the strands of pink flesh. It thrilled her anew, thrilled her even more than the wine that was suddenly, unexpectedly pumping through her vessels, more than the crimped, crooked fingers running through her hair, more than the sound of crickets whose wings pulsed through air that was suddenly hot and thick and liquid. More than the flesh, dark as the very soil upon which they lay, that the pink had replaced.
Clarissa felt flight. Not the flight of superheroes but the flight of bad dreams and halting rollercoasters, before landing back on the sheets drenched in sweat. The feeling lasted only moments – then she was on the ground hurtling along the hill, letting her momentum carry her through the tender scrapes and bruises, her mind focused on every violent blade of grass all at once. Her pain was secondary – confined only to her mind, which she had turned off long ago anyway. She was only aware of her body, feeling every pore as if filled with the hot beams of car light. And she was aware of Benny, and Benny’s body, crashing through the underbrush.
It was only then, as she was catching her breath, her and Benny and the blanket mangled in sweat and dirt, that she first caught the sadness she had so longed to see in Benny’s eyes. It was not for long, and only at a distance. But she swore she saw it. She had always seen it. Then Benny turned, his dark body silhouetted beneath the cross, and took the axe from his father’s freshly made car. He limped quietly back towards her from the trunk, maybe sobbing, maybe sighing. With short, deliberate strokes, he felled the whitewashed planks. They resisted, but he continued, splitting the supports first before turning on the fallen beams before kicking over what was left. . Panting, he dropped the axe into the pile of splinters and detritus littering the ground. Then, returning the ax to the car, he pulled out a joint, lit up, and watched as a charter bus passed silently by the spot where two months ago half the Lorne family was crushed by a Mack truck.