MY BROTHER-IN-LAW should've left his car window rolled up when he chose to smoke with his mother beside him in the passenger seat, oxygen strapped to her nostrils. They were driving between Graywood Emergency Regional Memorial hospital and her home in rural Gruel. My mother-in-law, Ina-whom I called "Vudge" behind her back, insisting in my head that her middle name was Ina-had gotten released after a lung-surgery stint. According to oncologist Dr. Rolander, they should've filmed the procedure it went so textbook. A third of one lung got clipped out, no chemo or radiation would be scheduled, and Vudge could go on to live another seventy years. Rolander might've been the only good real doctor in all of Forty-Five, South Carolina. When he came out of surgery he told all of us-brother-in-law Irby, my wife, Rebekah, and me-"Man, that went way better than I ever thought!" I tried my best to sigh relief.
This, of course, all took place outside the surgery waiting room exactly five days before Irby rolled his window down, which caused the ember of his cigarette to fly off, perform some kind of trick acrobatic backflip witnessed normally during Christmas, Fourth of July, New Year's Eve, or Confederate's Day celebrations in South Carolina when bottle rockets get minds of their own, and finally embed itself between Vudge's left nostril and the rubber tube spraying pure-tee oxygen in her face.
The resulting explosion was merciless, as you can imagine-car, in-laws, and metal canister lifting skyward like a regular Scud missile. It got mentioned on a local television station newscast sixty miles away, not just on Forty-Five's local access.
But let me get back to the surgery waiting room and explain what went on there, and what must've been a daily, ongoing routine. Evidently a six A.M. surgery admittance of a friend, relative, or long-lost acquaintance becomes the social highlight of the year for everyone in Graywood County. My wife and now-dead brother-in-law took cushioned seats between the giant-screen TV-morning cartoons, no national news-and the complimentary doughnut/coffee/hot chocolate/PayDay candy bar rolling kiosk. Blacks and whites gathered in groups of their own, and I noticed right off that one set of well-wishers dressed as if going to a funeral, the other as if on their way to a tractor pull. But I don't want to generalize whatsoever. I don't want to categorize my wife's people. I'm sure that some white people wear bib overalls and stained, bent LET THE BIG TIRES ROLL caps to loved ones' awkward eulogies.
People called out to each other from one side of the room to the other. Introductions were made and more than once I heard, "Oh, I 'member you! You went by Little Bubba when you was a boy," or "I 'member you! You had a brother in my grade name of Little Bubba, back when you was a tiny girl," or "Hey, you 'member me! I went by L'il Scooby by some. Big Stuff by some. My sister was Shonuff," and so on from across the way.
Not a magazine had been read on the wall rack, as far as I could tell. Both Time and Newsweek ran cover stories on Richard Nixon's daughter's upcoming wedding in the White House.
I said, "Hey, Bekah, we should've brought some cards. Or pin the tail on the donkey." I should mention that Rebekah bragged how her name got spelled exactly like the Bible woman. Then four years into the marriage she decided to go by "Bekah." Bekah thought with such a moniker she'd come across as more easygoing, sympathetic, open-minded, and friendly. She cared. It was important in her job as a debt collector.
So she went by Bekah for another four or five years. But for all I know, since the deaths of her mother and brother she's cut it all the way down to plain Kah.
Kah, Kah, Kah.
Back in the surgery waiting room my wife said, "People act in different ways when faced with diversity. Don't judge so much."
I felt pretty sure she meant "adversity," but who knows? If I'd've predicted Vudge's and Irby's demises, Bekah's inheritance, our odd investment, the hospital's willingness to settle quickly out of court, and then Bekah's departure two months into our new life in Gruel, I might've spoken up. I said, "Why you so quiet, Irby?"
Irby and Bekah weren't twins but somehow got birthed only six months apart and both of them weighed in at eight pounds, something ounces. If it matters, Bekah came out first. She and Irby looked and acted similarly throughout life, though my wife went to college and became certified to teach first graders, then got a six-week paralegal degree in order to make a living in the Carolinas. After about a year of working for lawyers she somehow got hired on by a guy who tried to collect from ex-patients with no insurance who, for various reasons, chose not to pay their medical bills.
On a side note: I watched my wife watch everyone else in the waiting room. You could tell she picked out those who'd never paid and those who never would pay. It was uncanny.
Irby, on the other hand, spent a lot of time working odd jobs in between court-ordered community service projects. I liked my brother-in-law. If I'd've been able to predict everything, I would've yelled out for Irby to either not smoke altogether or to at least roll up his window so as not to chance the spark-fizzle-boom.
Irby stared at Fred and Wilma Flintstone on the TV. He said, "I'm quiet 'cause this has got me scared, that's all. I ain't ever thought that much how you could be here one minute and gone next. I didn't study up on history, Novel. I guess you reminded me of here-now, gone-then all the time, what with your knowledge of the things."
I never thought about it. I said, "Lord, Irby, shut up. Your mom will be okay, and you'll probably live forever."
It's true I studied history and continued to do so right before Vudge Ina went in for surgery, came out healthy within the week, then had her face melted off like an arc welder to a sheet of Bubble Wrap. As a matter of fact I'd recently finished up a fascinating biography of famed pathological liars called This Won't Hurt. To this day I have no clue what was fact and what was made up in that book.
Which brings me to this: Maybe the oxygen blowup due to Irby's keeping the window rolled down occurred otherwise, et cetera. Bekah and I followed behind Irby and Vudge, and it would take one of those slow-motion stop-freeze cameras to see what happened first: a spark in the car cab before veering down a long steep embankment going down to Lake Between; or a veer off the road, an impact, the explosion.
Me, I said nothing. Bekah, though, told cops and coroner alike that she'd take a lie detector test about what she witnessed. Seeing as she had that debt collector job, I think she got to practice, unknowingly, for the polygraph any time she wanted.
The next thing you know, my wife had inherited her childhood home, retained two lawyers well-known for keeping athletes and wrestlers out of jail up in Charlotte, and somehow settled a quarter-million-dollar negligence charge against the hospital for its oxygen tank. Bekah said, "It's a sign that what I proved to myself during that weeklong sneezing fit last year is something I should show anyone with a weight problem. You watch and see, Novel. Watch and learn. I know what I'm talking about."
We'd gone through a dual funeral for her mom and brother. I said, "If you need me to quit my job," which I didn't want to do seeing as I loved it, kind of, "I'll quit. Whatever you want."
Listen, I kind of remembered Bekah sneezing so hard and frequently two springs earlier that she lost fifteen pounds and toned her stomach down to-my opinion-a scary, scary washboard. And I kind of remembered when she had said, "You know what, Novel? One day, if I ever have the money, I'm going to open a surefire weight-loss tone-up clinic that'll ...