SHORT STORY | FADE AWAY
"It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace...
Oh, I wish I had a river
I could skate away on"
...Joni Mitchell, From BLUE, Copyright, 1971
For weeks now Sophie has been look forward to Christmas, but this year it's not going to be the same. Three days ago her father Aaron had been driving his jade green Hudson east down the old Lincoln Highway through a blizzard on his way home from Des Moines with a trunk full of presents, when he wrapped himself around a utility pole and ended up half dead in the snow by the side of the road. According to the State Trooper who'd found him, Aaron had apparently been trying to pour himself a cup of hot coffee from his thermos when he'd apparently spilled some on his lap, and after he'd taken his eyes off the road for a second, the car skidded on a patch of black ice and he couldn't recover.
By the time Sophie and her mom could get packed and head up to the emergency room at Iowa Lutheran Hospital in Des Moines, the storm had gotten worse and they had no choice but to turn around and go home, leaving Aaron to spend one of the coldest weekends on record alone.
Sophie already misses him more than she can stand. For weeks she'd been looking forward to following him around the farm, cutting down a Christmas tree, slogging through the muck and the mud, hunting down their tub of lard milk cow Angel Face, and listening to the wind whistle through the half frozen oak trees.
Unable to sleep, Sophie can't stop thinking about the things she misses most about her dad, like listening to all the stories he loved to tell about the bad ole days when he'd stumble all over the countryside, hammered out of his gourd, chasing after Sarah all through high school. He never held anything back from Sophie; he told her everything, even personal stuff Sarah still doesn't know about. Like what drinking too much can do to a person and how it had cost him a baseball scholarship that he'd wanted more than anything in the world, which probably explained why he finally stopped drinking booze and started snorting coffee the way he did.
There was one particular conversation they'd had when her oblivious father tried to teach her about brassieres and how maybe she should start shopping around for one. "Helllloooo! Duh," she blurted, astounded that he even knew about such things.
"Please tell me you didn't just say, 'helllloooo, duh', Aaron cracked. "You've been hanging out with that Valley girl transplant Katie Clueless from two farms over again, haven't you? I think you two must actually all sit around and practice butchering the English language. Let me see your roots. Are you sure you're not blond? Please tell me you don't get excited when you finish a jigsaw puzzle in six months because the box says, '2 to 4 years!' "
"Dad! That is soooo lame."
"There ya go again, proving my point. By the way you didn't take that new scarf I gave you for your birthday back because it was too tight, did you?"
"Dad, I swear, if you get any lamer you'll limp. I'm going to bed now. Becky Miller and I are going ice fishing tomorrow. I just hope we don't get run over by the Zamboni. Get it? Ice fishing…Zamboni?"
"Yes, dear, I'm afraid I do. Now, say goodnight, Gracie."
But Sophie's favorite memory of her dad is the time he tiptoed up to her room one bone-chilling winter night and drove her over to Clear Lake to see the old Surf Ballroom where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper had played the night before they all died in a plane crash in a corn field five miles north of town. "You're gonna love this place," he said. "Those old rock and rollers are still the best. They just don't make records like that anymore."
After Aaron had wrestled his gun metal grey Packard to stop in the old Surf Ballroom parking lot, he stuck in an eight-track tape and he and Sophie got out and danced in the snow to the Big Bopper's Chantilly Lace and Ritchie Valen's Donna for awhile, and then he put on Buddy Holly and they danced to Peggy Sue and True Love Ways until an Iowa State Highway Patrolman pulled up and told them; "Good grief, people, Buddy Holly's dead, get over it." So they just left and laughed about it all the way home.
Sophie can hear the phone in her mother's bedroom ring and when Sarah picks up and hears who's it is, she drops the receiver and starts crying: real quiet at first, and then louder. And she won't stop. A minute or two later she walks into Sophie's room and stands in the doorway, her face a white clay mask. She doesn't have to say anything; Sophie already knows what's happened. Her father didn't make it. Sarah tells her later that the doctors said his heart just stopped and there was nothing more they could have done to save him.
In a way, a part of Sophie died too that night. It will be years before she can forgive herself, or her mother, for not trying harder to fight their way through that blizzard to get to Des Moines to be with Aaron, instead of leaving him there to spend Christmas all by himself. He was only thirty-five years old and that was no way for a person to die.
Even now, she still thinks about the time they drove home from Clear Lake listening to Buddy, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper on the old eight-track. What a sweet disaster her father was. It's amazing he'd lived as long as he did, considering his drinking and everything that happened to him in the war and all. She still loves him so much it takes the wind right out of her just saying his name lately, especially when she tries to imagine what it's going to be like not having him around at Christmas anymore to help her pick out the perfect tree, or wrap presents, or help her find the perfect gift for Sarah. She knows he'd loved her half to death, but that doesn't keep her from missing him so much she doesn't know what to do with herself anymore. And sometimes all she can do about it is dress up in her mom's old hoop skirt and saddle shoes, turn up Buddy's "Fade Away" real loud, and just cry and cry until it's over.