Jennifer McGaha

Thunderstorms were number one on my list of fears. Back at home, whenever we had a thunderstorm at night, I dragged my pillow and blanket into the hallway and slept on the floor outside my parents’ locked bedroom door. Now, as the rain began to fall in fat discs on our windshield, I cranked my window closed and clasped one clammy hand to the other. The rain picked up speed and pummeled the roof. Lightning streaked the entire landscape, a fierce, blinding light that brought to mind an event that was number two on my list of fears—the Second Coming. In fact, these top two fears were connected in my mind.

In all the pictures from Sunday School, Christ returned in a brilliant, holy flash just before he sent all the whoremongers and pregnant women directly through the earth to burn in eternal agony. I pulled my knees to my chest and rocked side-to-side. While Dad turned the wipers to high and Mom strained to read the map, I searched the sky. We crept along, doing thirty-five in a fifty-five, until eventually, finally, the tall buildings of Oklahoma City emerged out of what seemed like nothingness. As soon as we pulled in the motel parking lot, the rain eased, the clouds parted, and a flicker of sunlight emerged. We had made it. It wasn’t the Rapture after all. Yet. I wiped my hands on my shirt and scrambled from the car.

The motel room had two double beds. My brother and I tossed our luggage in a corner and each flopped on a bedspread. That’s when we discovered the slots in the headboards. If you put a quarter in the slot, the bed would bounce up and down for a full fifteen minutes. My brother and I searched through the change that my dad had emptied from his pockets onto the dresser, and then we inserted quarter after quarter into the bed slots, while our parents got ready for dinner. Finally, my mother came in and stood at the foot of my bed.

“Jennifer,” she said, “let’s take a walk outside.”

“I don’t want to,” I said. Except it came out all warbly, like I donnnn wannn tooo, because I was thrashing about like the Mexican jumping beans I had bought at a gas station back in Arkansas. “Why doesn’t Robert have to?”

My mother wore white shorts, a sleeveless blouse, and flat, white sandals. Her toenails were painted cardinal red and her mouth was slightly open, her teeth parted an eighth of a millimeter, an indication that she was exasperated beyond all reason.

“Come on, Jennifer,” she said.

I sighed and slid off the bed. As I followed our mother out the door, my brother smirked and stuck out his tongue. His bed was making a grinding sound. I hoped it blew up. Outside, the air was thick and moist and I could see in the windows of the other guests as we passed their rooms. Sitting in stiff, straight chairs, they sipped icy drinks from amber glasses and tapped their cigarette ashes onto gold ashtrays. My mother cleared her throat and began to speak.

“Jennifer, I have something hard to tell you,” she said. “And I wanted to tell you outside, so you could cry if you wanted to.”

Now, in retrospect, I realize this says volumes about our family—the fact that we believed sorrow was a matter best attended to in a public parking lot, rather than in a motel room surrounded by loved ones. But, at the time, I simply knew my maternal grandparents were dead. They were the closest family we had and were in their late fifties by then—practically ancient. It was dinner time. Across the street, families were filing into a steakhouse. I stared at them and tried to imagine what they were saying to one another, what they could possibly find to say at a time like this.

“It’s just,” my mother finally said, “that you left Snuggles and the others in the last hotel, back in Arkansas.”

It took me a moment to process what she had just said. My grandparents were not dead. They would not be dead for many, many years. They would live to come to my high school graduation and my college graduation, to cradle all three of my children in their wrinkled arms, to reach an age where they would be afraid my six real dogs would jump on them and cause them to tumble over their walkers. I started to cry.

“It’s okay! It’s okay!” my mother said. “We have already called the motel and they found all the dogs. They are going to put them in a box and mail them to the Grand Canyon. We will meet them there.”

And it was only then that it occurred to me to consider how my concern for my own safety during the storm had caused me to completely forget about my dogs. Normally, I would have been checking on them, but I hadn’t even noticed they weren’t there. I thought of how lonely they must have been in the empty hotel room, how abandoned they must have felt, how scared they were going to be to ride all the way to Arizona in a stuffy, dark box. And so then I cried some more.

“It’s okay,” my mother said. “You can cry as much as you want to out here.”

“It’s just…it’s just…”

My mother waited.

“It’s just that I thought something had happened to Mamaw and Papaw!” I sobbed.

My mother paused, her lips a tiny oval, her lovely cheekbones cresting into her forehead. “Why, of course not. What on earth would make you think that?”

I cried louder. Sure, my dogs were okay, my grandparents were okay, but now I knew that any minute now someone might lead me outside and tell me something terrible. It was all too much. I had survived what very well could have been the Second Coming only to live through this.

My mother and I stood there for what seemed like a very long time. Steam rose in clouds from the pavement. My hair and shirt grew damp. And then the sun began to dip beneath the horizon and an orange glow gathered around my mother’s legs. And while she patted my heaving back, I hinged forward, tears dripping onto the pavement, mucus oozing into my mouth, my gaze fixed on the delicate curves of my mother’s red toes.

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