|Mary Evans Zbegner|
See the Dark
Sitting down on the couch was a mistake. I closed my eyes and fatigue washed over me, wiping the errands from my mind. The basket of clean laundry sat on the floor beside me, and I knew that both kids needed their soccer shirts for the next day, and Lauren would want her favorite jeans for school. But, for a minute, I waded into the darkness and let it pull me down.
I'd been up since before sunrise to say goodbye to Dwight before he left for the airport, then rushed the kids off to school on the bus at the ungodly hour of 6:50. From there, the day had pitched forward at a steady speed: teaching from nine till noon, grocery shopping on the way home, and correcting a few research paper proposals before the hustle of after-school practice pick-ups, dinner, homework checks, showers, and bedtime. I'd set out two wine glasses to enjoy a drink when Dwight got home, and a plate of pasta and meatballs was covered with plastic wrap in the fridge if he had not had time to grab dinner before the return flight.
This load of wash had been squeezed in somewhere, but I was tuckered out. Adjusting to the September schedule always required stretching and flexing. I pictured Dwight's arrival, the kisses, the shared wine, and smiled.
The phone rang, pulling me from a quick dip into the shallows of sleep.
Edith, my mother-in-law, wasted no time. "I heard there's been a plane crash, Mary. U.S. Air outside Pittsburgh. Isn't Dwight coming in tonight?"
"What's that?" I asked.
"Yes, it's all over the news," Edith continued. "I know he sometimes connects in Pittsburgh on his way home from Chicago. He usually flies on U.S. Air. I wanted to check to be sure it isn't his flight."
"No, no. It wouldn't be," I said, stroking my forehead as if pulling up Dwight's travel plans to the front of my mind. "He changed his flights—to United. He wanted to be gone only for the day so he could be home for the kids."
Even though I kept track of everyone's schedule, I answered with patience. "Yeah, he wanted to be home in the morning. You know how he is."
Dwight had always been an early riser and tried to convince everyone else of the magic of mornings. He insisted the kids wake up an hour before the bus arrived to eat a good breakfast together and review everyone's plans for the day. Even at six a.m., he bubbled with enthusiasm, joking with Lauren about her Princess Leia pigtails or teasing Jonathan about his new habit of spiking the front of his hair.
"He hates being away overnight because he never sleeps well. You know that. So he said the United flight allowed him to go early and still come home tonight."
"Thank goodness. It's an awful accident. It's on every station."
After reassuring Edith once more, I hung up and returned to the basket of clothes. She fretted about everything, a trait she had inherited from her Italian-born mother. I knew, too, that she had been living alone for ten years after losing her husband to a heart attack, so she naturally worried even more.
I turned on the television while folding the clothes, making four neat piles, one for each of us. The catastrophe burned on every network as I automatically stacked the neat geometric shapes. Eyewitnesses reported that U.S. Air #427 appeared to be making a normal approach around 7 p.m. when it suddenly veered to the left and then nosedived toward the ground from an altitude of 6,000 feet. Camera crews filmed the dark, scorched wound where the fuselage had met the earth, leaving little debris from such a huge plane. Apparently, it had hit with such force, it was reduced to mere scraps. Huge flames had ignited the nearby trees, but debris was strewn everywhere. Some of it was recognizable: seat cushions dotted the hillside, open briefcases spilled ruined files, suit jackets spread burnt sleeves, and torn clothing hung from low bushes. Sheets of metal peeled back with jagged edges, and you could see the fire was so hot the paint blistered and sputtered. The reporters spoke in serious, subdued voices. They believed there were no survivors; all 132 passengers and crew were believed dead.
My eyes went from the screen to the clothes, my mind going to the victims' last seconds and their families receiving the news. My hands folded the shirts into smooth squares, and matched the seams of the pants so the creases would be straight. Bundled into tight balls, socks topped the clothes pyramids. No one knew the cause, but nothing was ruled out: mechanical failure, pilot error, even sabotage was mentioned. The strobe-like emergency lights and the sirens that sounded like air raid warnings awoke a small rodent of nervousness that began to gnaw at my stomach.
I checked the time: 8:50. Dwight usually called from his layover in Pittsburgh, but sometimes the connection was too tight. Even so, if his plane was not delayed, he should have landed in Scranton by now, and if the departure time had been pushed later than scheduled, he would have called then. I decided to go downstairs to the office to check his appointment book. Not wanting to admit the reason to myself, I went quickly, almost sneakily, holding my breath and keeping fear tightly coiled and in its corner.
I was glad to see the burgundy leather of Dwight's planner on his disorderly desk. He had not taken it with him since he would be gone only the one day. I looked at the slim black ribbon holding the place of today's date and was reminded of the white missal I had received for First Holy Communion. I opened to today's page. Dwight's chicken scratch was hard to read. From what I could decipher, the first line said: "Dist. Sales Managers Mtg. 9–5." A cramped note followed this: "U.S. Air. #67 — 7:05 a.m. to Chi.", which was crossed out, and written above it was "United #168, 6:10." I figured that sounded right; Dwight had left around five to make it to the airport, and he had specifically told me he was flying United.
The return flight involved a connection, one leg left Chicago and connected in Pittsburgh, and the second departed from Pittsburgh and arrived in Scranton. The numbers were written carelessly, a product of Dwight's haste. He excelled in action, not in planning, and his legendary ability to talk for hours did not transfer to note taking. I squinted and turned on the desk lamp. The extra light helped make sense of the crooked line of numbers and abbreviations: "U.S. Air #427 — 5:52 to Pitt., United #1044 — 7:47 to Scr." The strikeover of the line above extended onto some of these numbers, so the "427" could have actually been "421", but the name of the airline was definitely clear.
I scanned the page to see if any other changes had been made, certain Dwight had switched all the flights to United. Had I become complacent with his travel itineraries since he left home more often since he had been promoted to sales manager several years earlier? On the large calendar on the desk where Dwight sometimes wrote reminders, September 8th was blank. Rifling through the notes by the phone and scattered over the desk, I found one with the same abbreviated flight information. My eyes stopped at the name of the airline: "U.S. Air"—and the numbers: "4-2-7"—clear and distinct. I flinched and dropped it back onto the desk. Had he only changed his morning flight to United?
A hand flew to my throat as if the oxygen had been sucked from the room. I stood perfectly still, daring not to breathe or move. "U.S. Air 427" seemed to flash like a mental neon sign. I shook my head and whispered, "No!" with a short burst of pent-up air. Stupidly, I remembered ridiculous situations when I had wished saying "no" could reverse the action: the repeated "no" over a ruined chocolate cake, burnt black because I had not heard the timer ping; my "no" upon seeing that pink sweater with an unfixable slit beside the side seam because I had been overzealous with the scissors on that offending tag that had scratched the soft skin of my stomach into a red, flaming patch. But this was different. I had only opened the book and read the flight numbers; I had not done anything wrong. The minutes ticked by in prolonged seconds that clung to each distorted moment. I shook my head again to clear the dizziness and repeated the useless "No!" I was frozen to the spot, afraid to make things worse by moving.
My jagged sigh seemed to breathe a second self into existence. This presence drifted upwards and looked down from a high perch to watch me, from where it was able to not only observe, but also to analyze and evaluate me, Mary-whose-feet-were-on-the-floor. Oddly, the Floating-Mary could choose to be just a spectator or direct my body's movements, too. Floating-Mary was in charge and not afraid. Mary-with-her-feet-on-the-floor verbalized no thoughts or feelings. I merely completed actions, directed by instinct buried deep within an animal core.
I opened my eyes wide as if a predator were lurking nearby. My chest rose with short pants while scanning the perimeter of the room. Fear, unleashing its restraints, circled me, its prey. Before it pounced, I reached out quickly and snatched the day planner, turned toward the door, and darted up the stairs where the accident re-created a war-zone facsimile on the television screen. Floating-Mary followed me, driven by a need to know what would happen next. Fear, too, sidled up the stairs silently and crouched in the shadows.
Like a prim old lady, I sat on the edge of the couch, the planner held between my palms with my thumbs crossed over the top as if it were a hymnal. Floating-Mary thought I looked as if I were in church, mesmerized by a priest's sermon. I stared at the TV.
"Open the book and check," Floating-Mary said.
My body did not respond, strong and resistant.
"You need to know," Floating-Mary persisted. "See if it's his flight."
I bowed my head in submission. With fingers that shook, I took the slender ribbon bookmark and opened to the page. My chin resting on my chest, I closed my eyes.
"Look to be sure," I heard, the voice seeming to come from above.
I opened my eyes and looked at the text scrolling across the bottom of the screen: "U.S. Air Flight 427 crashed near Pittsburgh at 7:03 p.m. All 132 passengers and crew presumed dead."
I lowered my eyes to the page. "USAir 427." It was the same flight. I should have reacted with unbridled emotion, but I simply did not, could not, believe that Dwight had been on that plane, the one crushed to smithereens, the one smoking on my television screen. I concentrated on not holding my breath and waited for instructions from Floating-Mary, but she had decided to observe only, not processing this information either. Fear's tongue circled its mouth as it waited for the moment to strike. Time started to play by new rules, in slow motion, each second weighed down with dread.
Suddenly, the phone rang, shrill and panicked. Both my selves merged to function, to speak and think, as I got up to answer.
"Hey, Mary, it's Lynn. I don't know if you're watching the news, but there's been an airline accident."
"Uh-huh," I said.
"I know Dwight's coming back tonight, so I thought I'd call— to check—"
I opened my mouth, but no words emerged.
"Mare— are you there?"
"Yes, I'm here," I managed, taking breaths between each word but keeping my eyes shut tight, willing Fear to retreat.
"Is it Dwight's flight, Mary?" Lynn had lowered her voice to a whisper, hesitating.
"Maybe," I said, but it sounded more like a moan in a child's nightmare when the monster rushes forward to attack.
"I'll be right there," Lynn said, and the line went dead.
I walked back to the couch, cradling the phone to my chest. The floor seemed to shift planes like in an earthquake, causing me to almost lose my balance before grabbing the armrest and collapsing onto the cushioned seat. While I rocked back and forth, Floating-Mary detached and rose again to watch. At some level the truth lurked, but we had decided to wait for confirmation. It seemed logical and appropriate; I could not conceive of anything else to do. I waited for my friend to arrive, to wait with me. A sense of unreality convinced me this could not be true. The minutes expanded. At the same time, fractions of hours collapsed upon themselves and disappeared into a black hole of time, made dense by uncertainty.
I put the phone down on the end table and picked up the remote, lowering the volume. The appointment book found its way into my hands, and I folded my fingers around it. A moth struck the screen door, making a noise too loud for its size. Jolted slightly, I grabbed the arm of the chair and cast my eyes toward the sound. The wings buzzed along the surface, causing the taut grid to vibrate in a steadily rising hum as the insect's panic increased. Then, it flew off, and the loud chorus of crickets and katydids drowned out the newscaster's voice. I heard myself sigh, but waited quietly because I felt separated into two halves, and the deeds of one did not connect with the thoughts and feelings of the other. I hung in a vacuum of reality, suspended.
Lynn let herself in and sat beside me. She turned to me and began to speak, but the look on my face must have silenced her. Opening my fingers, I showed her Dwight's planner. As Lynn took the book, it slipped to the floor, but she quickly retrieved it and opened to September 8th, 1994. I knew she was doing exactly what I had done, checking and re-checking the date, scrutinizing the airlines and cramped numbers again and again, and comparing them to the news report. Then Lynn turned, and with silent tears, enclosed me within her arms, but I felt limp, like a lifeless doll.
Finally, Lynn spoke. "Have you tried to call the airlines?"
I shook my head dumbly. I had not thought of that. "Do you want the phone book?" I asked.
"Yeah, that would be good," she answered. "Let's call. Maybe he didn't get on the plane or something."
I nodded obediently before saying, "All right."
I rummaged for the phone book in the closet and brought it to Lynn.
The tissue paper pages snapped as she flipped each one quickly, scanning for the number. Running her finger down the page and stopping, Lynn said, "Maybe this number will work."
As I reached for the phone, it rang, the tone harsh and insistent. First, I stared at it in confusion, but then answered it quickly so it wouldn't wake Jonathan and Lauren. Again, the two parts of me melded so I could function. Time wavered with illusions like a distant mirage of water in a desert.
"Hello, Mary?" a strange voice began. "This is David Levy, the vice president of sales from Searle Labs, out here in Chicago. We met last May at Pro Club in Hawaii."
"Yes, I remember," I said, wondering why he was calling, afraid of why he was calling. My voice faltered, like a puff of smoke dissolving into the air.
"Dwight was out here today at a sales managers' meeting."
"I know. He told me," I said, my voice a whisper as if we were sharing a secret.
Another moth flew into the screen, causing it to twang and thrum. Its wings desperately fluttered as it tried to gain entrance, to get close to the light. I could imagine its furry body scurrying along, bouncing into the nylon mesh again and again, its head and antennae upright and alert, its crooked legs pricking the surface, searching for an opening.
"Well, I'm sorry to have to call you. Our travel department contacted me to tell me Dwight was on a U.S. Air flight that crashed tonight before landing in Pittsburgh."
"I saw the accident on the news." I started to breathe in shallow gulps. "But I'm not sure if it's his flight. There were some changes. He told me he was flying United."
"No, he was scheduled to board the plane," David said in an even tone.
"But, you can't be sure yet, can you?" I asked with the high-pitched voice of a child afraid of the dark.
"The travel agency contacted U.S. Air. Dwight's name is on the passenger list. They believe he boarded the plane, Mary. There are no survivors. I'm so sorry."
"No! They can't be sure of that either." I talked loudly, almost shouting into the phone, convinced he did not know what he was talking about. Wouldn't the airlines call me when they knew? "You don't know for sure. Why didn't they call me? Maybe he didn't get on. Maybe he got out—somehow—maybe he's just wandering around—hurt—and they haven't found him. He's strong— and—"
David interrupted my runaway train of possibilities. "Is someone with you, Mary? Can I call someone for you?"
"My friend is here, and the kids are sleeping."
"Can I speak to your friend, Mary?"
"Yes, but what am I supposed to do? What should I do? What if he doesn't come home?" I held the receiver with two hands, hoping David Levy of Searle Laboratories would understand my need for instructions.
"Maybe you should put your friend on the line, Mary," Dwight's boss suggested strongly. "Please."
I handed the phone to Lynn, who took it with a questioning look. She listened, saying, "Yes," "Okay," and "I understand."
When she gave the phone back to me, David was still on the line. "We'll be contacting you tomorrow, Mary, so we can help."
"All right. Goodbye."
Lynn and I looked at each other grimly. "What should I do, Lynn?"
"I don't know," she said as she slid closer and put her arm around my shoulder.
"It can't be true. He'd get away somehow. He wouldn't leave me." I resisted the tears that formed suddenly like dew after sunset. "No! He will come home to me. He loves me. He loves the kids. He'll be here soon. I know it," I insisted. Floating-Mary ascended as the tears wet my face and neck. Like a guardian angel, she protected my core, but I didn't understand that then.
"We'll figure this out," Lynn said with a forced confidence. "I'll help you. I won't leave you. We'll figure this out together, Mary." She grabbed my shoulder with desperate fingers and pulled me close.
I stood up, not wanting to be touched because it meant I needed to be comforted. Fists clenched at my sides, I paced the room with angry stomps, and then plopped down on the far side of the couch. I realized there was nowhere to go, nowhere to get answers, nowhere to hide. I covered my face with my hands and exhaled in a long sputter. A series of strangled, yelping noises followed as if someone were kicking me in the stomach. Fear stalked close by, coaxing my pained cries. They answered the crickets' call. Floating-Mary simply watched.
I raised my face when I heard rushed footsteps and the bathroom door bang open. Palm clamped over my mouth, I knew it was too late. One of the kids had heard. A new fear took hold like an iron grip. I stood up, craned my neck, and saw the bathroom light spilling into the hall. Then the sounds of retching, the grunting of vomiting, reached my ears.
I wiped my eyes and cheeks while rushing to the door. Jonathan was hunched over the toilet, gasping between the spasms of throwing up. Walking toward him, I reached out to rub his T-shirted back. He must have overheard, I thought, and probably snuck down the hall to figure out what was going on, the news sickening him. Floating-Mary decided to pretend, telling me to reach inside for the needed role-play and suggesting the right words.
"Oh, honey, what happened? You'll be all right. Just let it out," I murmured, running my palm in soft circles, feeling his ribs beneath the taut skin. At twelve, Jonathan was stretching in height, but had not begun to fill out.
He looked up before another gag seized his thin frame. His face was ashen, dazed with sickness and terror. My eyes did not see my son, but a caricature like the horrified face in Munch's Scream painting. The room spun into spirals of dizzying colors. Jonathan sounded as if he were heaving his stomach and lungs from his body trying to dislodge what he suspected. Desperate to help, to do something, I opened the cabinet, took out a washcloth, and ran it under cold water.
I sponged his forehead when he finished, then wiped his cheeks. He let me tend to him without complaint.
"Better?" I asked, terrified by what he might say.
"Yeah," he sighed. "I guess." He tottered to the sink and used his hands to splash his face. Then he cupped some cool water in his palm and rinsed his mouth. He gulped at the air, like a fish straining to breathe.
"What's going on out there?" Jonathan asked. "I heard the phone ring, and then voices. It sounded like you were crying."
I didn't know what to say. My brain was scrambled, and I fought with the words, busying myself by straightening the towels on the rack and cranking the window closed to shut out the insects' clamor. Floating-Mary cued my words. "Well, there's been an accident, and Lynn is here with me. We're trying to figure it all out. No one has the details yet. Right now, you just need to know that everything's okay. When I know for sure what's going on, I'll tell you. But everything's going to be all right."
Jonathan's eyes narrowed and searched my face. I knew he could tell I'd been crying, but he apparently decided I seemed steady enough. Normally, he besieged me with questions, needing to know everything, but he appeared weak and tired. I opened my arms to hug him, and he stepped forward, ducking his head down, so I could kiss the top of his head. Dwight comforted me like that, too. My green-eyed boy took a deep, shaggy breath as if he were trying not to cry, and I held him tightly. I prayed for time to collapse and surrender this moment.
"I woke up and heard you," he said. "At first I didn't know what it was—it almost sounded like a hurt animal or something. I heard you saying 'no' and crying. I stood by the door to listen, but got so dizzy. Then, I knew I would be sick."
"Maybe you overdid it at soccer," I suggested. "You know you always get woozy after the first practices because you run so much and you're not used to it."
"Maybe," he said, but he wasn't convinced. "I don't know. Something's not right. I don't think you're telling me everything. Are you sure you're okay, Mom?"
I turned away and wiped at the counter, but I knew he knew. Why else would he react so violently? The taste of blood, salty and bitter, surprised me, and I realized I'd been biting the inside of my bottom lip. Floating-Mary whispered, urged me to get him back to bed before my façade breached.
"I'm fine. Come on, I'll tuck you in," I said, giving his shoulder a gentle nudge. He shrugged and left the bathroom, his feet making soft, slapping sounds on the tile. Jonathan walked gingerly, like someone who had exercised too much and each step brought a fresh wince of pain.
"Want the fan? It's kind of stuffy in here."
"All right," he consented as he rearranged the covers.
I set up the window fan and turned it on. Its steady hum replaced the swelling chorus outside. Straightening the sheet so its cotton surrounded his neck and chin, I gave Jonathan kisses on the cheek and forehead. I rubbed the crown of his head, feeling his closely cropped back-to-school haircut. The faint iron taste in my mouth helped me speak coherently.
"You're okay now, Jonathan?"
"I guess. You're sure everything's all right?"
I lied in the dark. "Oh, it will be. We'll figure it out."
"Okay, good night, Mom."
"Try to sleep, honey. Love you."
I propped the door open a bit with Jonathan's sneaker to allow the stale air a way to escape as the fan drew in the night's coolness. Dwight had shown me this trick years before during that hot summer I had been pregnant and could not sleep.
Stopping a few feet down the hall at Lauren's room, I cracked the door and listened to my daughter's soft breathing. The effort of mothering Jonathan, protecting him, had weakened me, and I needed a moment to be sure I could walk without stumbling. Floating-Mary observed Lauren from above in a detached calm. I entered the room silently, pulling up the twisted sheet and blanket she routinely kicked off. The innocent slumber of my ten-year old slowed my animal-like panic.
When I returned to the family room, Lynn whispered, "Is he all right?"
I assured her he seemed settled down. I sat, dazed, but Floating-Mary assessed that this emergency had been handled with deft, motherly efficiency and compassion. What surprised me more was Jonathan's somewhat compliant acceptance of my poor explanation, and I became certain he had pieced the news together but had not admitted it because saying the words would make it true.
Lynn called the airlines, taking the phone on the porch, but she received no definite answers after at least four transfers to different people. The families of the victims would receive official phone calls as soon as possible. Emergency crews were working, but the dark and the undeveloped terrain were causing problems. She was angry at the workers' apparent ignorance and indifference. I took it as a good sign; there had to have been a mistake.
I changed the channel, hoping the drone would ease Jonathan, but no show could hold our attention. The flames and rubble seemed to have cast shadows both behind the screen and behind our eyes. My body twitched with raw nerves, like a dog who in its sleep pantomimes running, its paws swiping at the air. Soft, anguished whimpers escaped involuntarily. It seemed Lynn and I sat for hours, mostly in silence, as time operated by its new rules. At some point I got up and closed my son's door.
A little after ten, headlights swept into the driveway. I leapt from the couch as a car door opened and slammed. My body and soul joined and reached out with hopeful anxiety, a rubber band at its limits. Footsteps skittered up the walk before I reached the door.
"Mary! I just heard and ran right over."
"Oh, Sylvia!" I saw my friend whose husband worked with Dwight. The men had worked together for twelve years, getting close, and our young families were alike in many ways. Sylvia was thrown together in rumpled clothes, wearing the broken, lopsided glasses she wore only in the mornings before she put in her contacts. "I thought you were Dwight," I blurted before crumpling to the floor. Fear rushed in, taking advantage of my weakness. "I thought he was finally here."
Sylvia crouched beside me, apologizing, and pulled me up and toward the couch, with Lynn helping. They sat on either side of me. A moth had gotten inside, and its grossly distorted shadow scuttled around the walls of the room as it darted around the lamp.
"David Levy called us," Sylvia said. "He told Paul that Dwight was on that plane. I rushed over. I didn't call because I didn't want to wake the kids." The words spilled from her, punctuated sharply, as if she couldn't decide whether to breathe or talk.
"Sylvia, what am I gonna do?" I asked between sobs.
She patted my knee. "We'll do whatever we have to," she said. She sat up straight. "We don't have much choice."
It sounded so stupid to me, this solution. Asinine, even. We could do more than what we had to, couldn't we? For most of my forty-one years I had been breaking problems down and organizing a series of steps to reach a solution. I'd been taught if I worked hard enough, anything could be solved or at least made better. I didn't feel powerless. There was a chance this could be corrected somehow: by the sheer force of my will, the power of my love, the intensity of my efforts. I wasn't ready to give up my life, to submit to the shock, to shut down and be a victim in a world in which time didn't move in scientific progression and loved ones didn't come home. I needed to handle this to prove it could be fixed.
I got up and stood by the screen door. The flimsy white-winged moths circled the glowing bulb outside, bumping it insistently, wanting its warmth, but hurting themselves in the process. I looked past the sphere of light surrounding the porch. The katydids and crickets continued their mad love songs. Jonathan had stood vigil in this way as a toddler dressed in his footed sleeper PJs. Mystified by the night, he'd ask, "See the dark?" He had turned to me for confirmation and then continued, "Hear the buggies?"
"See the Dark" is the first chapter of Mary Evans Zbegner's recently-completed, but as yet unpublished, memoir The Goldfinch's Song, which recounts her grief and recovery following her husband's death in the US Air flight 427 crash on September 8, 1994, which killed all 132 people on board. E-mail: mjlevans[at]epix.net