Friday, March 1, 2013

Black Ice and The Lady of Spain




January 7, 2011

        Driving home on a dark Friday night after an exhausting work week, I became aware of the thin layer of ice hiding beneath a light carpet of falling snow on Memorial Drive only when a reckless driver cut off a car ahead of me, sending those of us behind into a chain reaction of hitting the brakes and skidding helplessly forward, with the banks of the Charles River just feet to our left.  I somehow managed to slow my car down, barely tapping the car in front of me, then noticed the lights of another car, clearly out of control, skidding toward me from behind. The only thing that would stop him was the back end of my car.

        My dog Roxy, a brown cocker spaniel, was sitting on the seat next to me before the angular hit catapulted her toward the top of the steering wheel.  I grabbed her by the scruff of her neck as she sailed toward the windshield, which now had a crack in it where my head would have - had? - hit it, which was strange, since I was wearing a seat belt.

        The impact from that hit was so sudden and violent that I would testify in a court of law that my eyeballs watched the whole thing suspended in space in front of me - my right arm reflexively snatching Roxy in midflight, my body jolting forward and hitting the windshield, front and back fenders creaking, cracking, and snapping, and my eyeballs springing tightly back into their sockets as my body snapped back forcefully against the seat.  And all of it happened faster than Ashkenazy’s fingers playing Rachmaninoff.

        The only sound piercing the eerie quiet that followed was the hissing of radiators amid the intensifying smell of a mixture of antifreeze, steam, and oil.  Police sirens wailed from a distance.  Roxy kissed my face, her body shaking, and everything began to move in very slow motion.   I heard my own voice coming from somewhere, asking over and over again- where - is - my - phone? - I -have - to -  find - my - phone - 'Lady - of - Spain - I adore - you' - someone - has - hit - my - car - 'Right - from - the – night - I - first - saw - you' - and - now - a - state - trooper - is - yelling – too - loudly - in - my - ear – ‘Lady - of - Spain - can I have your license and - and - you - have - to - get - out - of - the – car.  (I - am – in - heavy - traffic - on - Memorial – Drive.  Do – you – want - me - to - stand - on - black – ice – in – the – middle – of – the – street?)

        The policeman was too busy handing out accident reports to the four drivers to notice my cracked windshield and spacey behavior, but when we were finished trading information and I walked back to my car and got in, the tow truck driver ran over to me.

        “Ma’am,” he said, “your car is not drivable.”

        “What – do – you – mean?” I asked him, truly puzzled.  I needed to get home to Laura, who would check me over and tell me I was fine.

        “Your radiator is leaking fluids, your exhaust pipes are bent and dragging on the ground, and your back door is off its hinges.  Grab your dog and your backpack and I’ll drive you to our body shop.”

        I found my phone in the back seat of the car, and knew something was wrong when I realized I wasn’t quite sure how to call Laura to let her know what had happened.


April, 1962

        I’m eight years old.  I lay paralyzed by fear in my twin bed on the second floor of our apartment.  My small hands are pressed hard over my eyes, which are squeezed closed trying to block out the police lights flashing on my pale green bedroom wall. My fourteen-year-old brother, Ronnie, popular and athletic in our local junior high school, has been jumped from behind and beaten up by some tough kids from up the hill at the apartment complex where my family of six share five rooms. The term  "up the hill" in our apartment complex is synonymous with "tough" because almost all of the trouble makers – the Stantons and the Duffys, to name just two families - live in that same area of the complex, on the hill above the parking lot. Even the girls in those families scare me.  Alice Stanton, who is older than me and a whole lot bigger, grabbed my wrist while I was roller skating in the parking lot, and I can still remember twisting my skinny arm in such a way that she was forced to let go. (There was always lots of room to play in the parking lot because not every family could afford a car. We were one of the lucky families who could.) I took off toward my apartment, frightened much more at the prospect of her catching me than of the impossible black asphalt incline I was barreling down in the flimsy metal skates I had tightened onto my sneakers with a key just a couple of hours earlier.

        From my bedroom I hear one of the adults say that a couple of the Stanton brothers should be sent ‘up the river’ for this, which made me think of the crying baby Moses floating downstream in a basket, all alone and afraid.

        I call for my mother, almost more in pain over her grief, as she is inconsolable in our small living room one floor below me.  I hear instructions being called out as the EMTs lift my big brother into the back of an ambulance.  I can hear Ronnie moaning, and my body is shaking.  Someone’s soft footsteps climb the stairs, and when they stop at the doorway of my bedroom, I see the outline of a woman, though I can still hear my mother crying downstairs.  As the shadow nears my bed I see the face of our neighbor’s daughter, Pat Johnston, our sometimes baby sitter. Although Pat is nice and kind and very pretty, with blond hair and slightly overlapping front teeth, she is not my mother, and my fear returns when she leaves me alone again in my dark room.   At some point afterwards I notice the presence of my baby sister sleeping in her crib a few feet away, unaware.  It hadn’t occurred to me to go next door to my brothers’ room, where my six-year-old brother Paul might be as scared as I was.  Even if I had thought of going to him, I couldn’t move a muscle, and I remained that way for a long time.

        I remember nothing else except that Ronnie came home from the hospital two days later, a Saturday, announcing to Paul and me that he had a concussion, which he said was like a bad headache.  He seemed impressed with himself for having sustained this injury, even proud, although it meant that he had to stay inside for a week.  My mother told us he shouldn’t move around much or get excited. This was hard to imagine, because Ronnie played basketball and baseball almost every day, and danced around our house singing and entertaining everyone, sort of like Bruce Willis’s character in the old show “Moonlighting.”

        I stayed with Ron all weekend, and each day after school the next week, I ran home to sit next to him on our beige living room sofa, and didn’t leave his side until dinner.  Sometimes Mary Garber sat with us, and sometimes Kathy Johnston, one of Pat’s younger sisters, and Ron patiently tried to teach us a couple of guitar chords.  "This is a C," he would say, showing us where to put our fingers.  "And this is G7."  I stayed there, next to my brother with the concussion who had been beaten up but was now back home in our living room playing the guitar.

        I watched with pride and admiration as Ronnie picked at the strings of his rented guitar, carefully placing the middle finger of his left hand between the correct frets, pulling and snapping the corresponding string with the pic in his right hand until the sound was just right, singing along with each note.  He started over again and again after the first few notes, the first six, and back to the beginning again: La-dy - of - Spain - I - a-- La-dy - of - Spain - I - a - dore - you, Right - from - the - night -- right- from - the - night -I - first - saw - you -- Lady - of – Spain – I - a....La-dy - of ...  As a birthday present for him, my parents rented the guitar from Pampalone Music Studios on the other side of Waltham, where he was taking weekly lessons.  In that section of Waltham, kids lived in real houses with back yards, away from the tough guys from up the hill who might be sent up the river.

        Ronnie seemed fine to me - he just had a headache and nobody was allowed to yell at him for a week.  Not so bad, I thought.  By the second weekend, he was looking and acting more like my noisy, funny older brother, and soon after lost his rights to the guitar and music lessons because of a bad report card.  Ronnie was back.

Lawrence Welk show - Lady of Spain