McBride received a call from a television station in another state. His daughter, a college student, had been involved in an environmental protest and was killed when a truck going out of the plant ran her down. They wanted him to comment. About her. About the new coal-fired power plant she’d been protesting. About his feelings—especially his feelings. They wanted names of friends they might contact.
In shock he answered politely, apologizing that he knew so little, until he couldn’t speak any more and closed the phone. He sat for a long time on the floor and stared at the blackened television screen.
Two hours later, when the authorities called, McBride was still in that position. The man on the phone had trouble understanding him and asked bluntly if he’d been drinking. McBride told him to go to hell. A few minutes later someone else called, a woman, and asked if the news people had contacted him. When he said “yes,” she apologized that they hadn’t got to him sooner. McBride tried to answer, but the words came out in a strange jumble.
The woman waited for him to stop and then offered details: it had been raining, the truck had made its way through a phalanx of protesters, and once the driver had got through that group, he’d sped up, not seeing the other, smaller group until it was too late. In addition to his daughter, there was a young man dead and a sixty-year-old woman in the hospital.
Oddly, the first thing the woman on the phone asked about his daughter was if the dead man was her boyfriend. McBride had never heard the man’s name before. Then she asked if his daughter was the member of the AAC.
“Americans Again Coal.”
McBride stared at the black screen as if it might provide guidance. “Why are you asking me these questions?”
She told him they were trying to figure out why his daughter was separate from the main group. They thought there might have been two groups at the gate and some kind of dispute between them.
“Does it matter?”
The woman let the question hang for a while then told him where his daughter’s body was and what he would need to do to claim it. She gave her condolences and her phone number, in case McBride thought of anything.
There were no tears, but his eyes ached and his head pounded. Coal. He tried to remember what it was about coal that people might fight over. Then he decided he didn’t care. His daughter’s opinions were not his, but it sickened him that she might have died for something stupid.
The rest of the night he let commonplaces take over and tried not to think about his daughter’s death or claiming her body. He booked a flight to the city where she had died, rented a car, reserved a motel room—as if he were planning a business trip, which he did occasionally. The company he worked for was small, and they didn’t have anyone to do that job.
He tried his ex, but either she wasn’t answering or she had her cell off. His next call woke a mutual friend, who told him Paula was on vacation with the doctor she’d married three days after she’d divorced McBride.
“How are you?” the friend asked.
“I don’t know.”
He called a work number and left a message. Soon, other friends called, but he let them go to voicemail. He didn’t want to be comforted.
Early the next morning, McBride drove to the airport early—too early, the airline counter hadn’t opened yet. When it did, they could find no record of his reservation, but the flight wasn’t full. Only when the agent asked how many bags he wanted to check did he realize he hadn’t packed. But he’d be coming back tomorrow; these clothes would be all right for a couple of days.
At the security checkpoint, they patted him down and rubbed his hand with a cloth, which they put through a chemical scanner to determine if he had touched explosives. Afterward, seeing he had trouble tying his shoes, a guard asked what was wrong. McBride told him everything. The guard, his belt bristling with weapons, knelt and helped McBride tie his shoes.
The flight was like every other flight, except that many passengers were dozing. McBride sat in a window seat and watched the clouds dot the pale morning landscape with shadows.
There were reporters just beyond the security checkpoint when he landed, and they trailed him through the airport. How did they know? He hadn’t eaten since the call, and had he been alone, he might have stopped for breakfast, but with them around it felt wrong. He bought bottled water at a kiosk and tried to answer their questions, but it was useless. He knew nothing of the protest or why Brie Anna had left school to join it. The reporters joined him on the curb outside and didn’t leave until the shuttle from the rental agency pulled up.
McBride got a car with a GPS and typed in the name of the power plant, but when he got there, he found himself on the wrong side of the property: there were no gates, no protestors, just grass and a fence and a parking lot, and a squat building with tall smokestacks. From one of them came a white cloud of flue gas that turned grey and hung like a shelf above the river.
He stayed a few minutes looking at the cloud and replaying his strange passage through the airport: the reporters with their cameras streaming behind him like the tail of a comet. He saw them jostling on the escalator and pushing through doors people were trying to enter. Their questions were strange. They wanted to know if he believed the police were lying and what he thought of coal-fired plants. They asked if his daughter and the young man were living together. One of them called her Rianna.
After reprogramming the GPS, McBride found the morgue without trouble, but the coroner’s people were upset by his arrival. He hadn’t called ahead to warn them. While they were preparing his daughter’s body to be viewed, a policewoman showed up, perhaps the one he had talked to earlier. She took him over the same terrain—his daughter’s beliefs, her friends, how she got to this town, four-hundred miles from the college she attended.
Finally, he pried her hand from his arm. “She’s dead,” he said, as if she might not know, and then moved to the other side of the room.
The Deputy Coroner was a short, bouncy little fellow, who told McBride that he was lucky: the truck hadn’t run over his daughter’s face. Apparently that had happened to the boy, yet his mother had insisted on viewing him. They went down a corridor decorated with pictures of mountains and beaches and into a room, one wall of which was nothing but stainless-steel doors the size of meat lockers. The body was on a gurney with a sheet over it. When he saw it, a terrible alertness came over him everywhere at once. He could feel a slight breeze from the air conditioning. There was a blister between her toes where a sandal strap would have been; the fingers of her left hand revealed three pale stripes where rings had been. A white-coated assistant turned back the sheet to her chin, and for a moment, he felt a shock of hope that this might be the wrong girl—the hair color was different—but there was no mistake. Brie Anna was smiling a little, as if she were aware of how clueless he felt. That had been her way when he didn’t understand: she smiled. The attendant replaced the sheet. He tried to draw it up tightly, but there was a slight concavity in her abdomen.
Back at the front desk, as they made arrangements, the smell of the place—not decay, but an antisepsis as cloying as cheap perfume—made him sick, and he vomited into a wastebasket. They gave him a clipboard so he could fill out the forms sitting down. They’d spelled her name wrong: Brianna instead of Brie Anna. He crossed it out and corrected it on each form. When he was finished, the woman behind the counter took the papers without a word, stamped them a couple of times and put them in her outbox. The Deputy Coroner gave him his daughter’s backpack and a baggy with her jewelry in it. He told McBride the clothing was ruined.
In the parking lot outside, a man not much older than his daughter, in jeans and a blue dress shirt, grabbed McBride. The man’s hands were thick and calloused, his eyes bloodshot, and he had a thick mess of hair that looked as if something had been rooting in it. Not a whole lot made sense at first. Eventually McBride realized this was the driver, and he was trying to apologize. A security guard tried to draw the man away, but he wouldn’t move.
There was a name, but McBride didn’t catch it. Someone was lying, the man said. It had been raining. He didn’t see them. In his face was a grief that McBride envied—no one should be in that much pain. But McBride’s very next thought was, you son of a bitch. As the cop drew him apart, the man kept saying, “Please . . . please.”
In his rental, waiting at a crosswalk, McBride pressed the steering wheel hard as if he could curl it back on its column. His daughter was dead.
Before he had left, the Coroner’s people had made him pick a mortician. The law in that state required she be embalmed, no matter where she went, even if she were cremated. The one he had chosen at random, he discovered from his GPS had three locations under the same name. He had to call to find out where to go.
The funeral home people informed him the wait would be a couple of days. McBride told them he had no change of clothes, and rather than sending him to a mall, the director, a young woman in a peach business suit, took down his sizes, asked the name of his motel and told him to get some sleep.
Before he left, his boss’s secretary had called to convey their condolences. She’d got the message and she’d also seen something on CNN; she thought it was terrible, what those people had done. She told him to be sure and let her know when the funeral was, and when he might be returning to work.
Two hours later, as McBride waited in his motel room, a teenage boy knocked on the door and handed him two shirts, two sets of underwear and two pairs of socks—plus toiletries and a safety razor—and told him they would put it on the bill.
The contents of his daughter’s backpack were spread over his king-sized bed. There had been nothing in the side pockets: everything had been crammed into the big central pouch, as if someone had gone through the contents then stuffed them back in—pens and deodorant mixed with the clothing. Like him, now, she had two blouses, two sets of underwear, two pairs of socks plus a pair of sandals. It had been raining when she died; she must have been wearing her tennis shoes. Much of it was familiar, even things he had never seen before: a red headscarf with dancing penguins, a can of mace the size of a lipstick in a hot pink holster. A notebook with a few Geology notes, class by class, dated, devolved into scrawls—first names and phone numbers, the address of a church—perhaps that was where they stayed. Two books: an oddly titled novel, What Is the What? and Big Coal, which looked like an expose. He leafed through the latter and then tore its pages out, a handful at a time, and threw them in the motel wastebasket. He went back through looking for her cell phone, but it was gone.
After a while, he took a shower and did his best with the safety razor. It was late afternoon and he was hungry, so he went across the street to an Italian restaurant, where the portions were large and he ate what he could.
Back in the motel, his stomach aching, he lay on the bed amongst his daughter’s things and watched the local news, which led off with the three deaths at the power plant—the old woman had succumbed to her injuries. The anchor called it a tragedy, and so did a state senator, who went on to defend the need for such plants and to blame the AAC for Brie Anna’s death. An AAC representative had his say, and then there was a shot of the coroner’s office. A reporter who looked about sixteen described the confrontation there. McBride got hold of the front desk and told them not to forward calls or tell anyone his room number.
He turned on his cell and scrolled through the alerts before erasing them all. There were a couple of texts from his wife, who told him to turn on his damned phone and not to do anything till she got there. Then she asked where he was.
It’s better to be alone, he thought, but as the thought settled in, his whole body contracted. He curled up and butted his head against his knees, and somehow that way rocked himself to sleep. When he awoke, hours had passed.
It was dark. He plumped a couple of pillows and lay thinking about his wife. After fifteen yearsmarriage, she had packed a couple of bags and left, saying she was tired, she wanted more. More turned out to be the surgeon who did her boobs—the left had been a cup size smaller than the right, and she’d wanted them even. McBride had told her he liked them the way they were. “It’s like sleeping with two women,” he said. She didn’t think it was funny.
At six in the morning, as McBride was drying himself from a shower, his cell phone moaned the shark music from Jaws. Brie Anna had programmed it that way as a joke to let him know her mother was calling. Paula was on an island, which she named, but which he had never heard of. She wept, she screamed, she blamed him for the accident. McBride stared at his shadow on the wall, cast by the pale light from the window. He gave her the name of the funeral home, told her what was happening.
“That’s fine,” she said. “But no more, nothing. I’ll write the obituary. I’ll take care of the arrangements. You’re hopeless with people, and you know it. At parties you hide in the kitchen and fuss with the hors d’oeuvres.”
It hadn’t occurred to him that a funeral was a social event, but it felt good to let Paula take over. She’d always thrown great parties.
He told her so, and she called him a cold bastard and hung up.
Which made him smile. “Cold bastard” hadn’t been much of an insult in the world of their marriage. It had meant something like “touché.” Even when they fought, it was a sign things were working themselves out. He remembered times, before she started moving up in the world, when they would quarrel and make up and tehn put a movie in for Brie Anna, who was always frightened by their raised voices, and they would lie on the couch, all three of them, and watch her movie; she’d burrow between them and fall asleep in the warmth of their mingled bodies.
There was a tiny crack in the wall—someone hadn’t taped the sheetrock properly. The crack went straight down McBride’s shadow and separated him into two halves. Paula had given him the name of a funeral home in their town, to which she wanted the body sent. He wrote it on a motel pad, and then moved to the window. Outside the lot was full of cars, but people were already beginning to leave. It was bordered by a stockade fence and beyond the fence a busy road. Some of the passing cars still had their lights on.
All day in that motel room, he felt as if he were floating. There was no pain, no anger; his emotions played like shadows on the wall. “Brie Anna”—Paula had named her and he’d hated the name, but now he could not imagine another. She had been alive, and vividly, from the day she was born—he remembered shrieks of excitement at small things: a geode, a frog in a box. He’d bought her lots of silly presents just to hear those peals of joy. When her parents divorced, Brie had chosen to stay with him, though her mother had pool and a house the size of Rhode Island. McBride had gone to her games and her plays, had helped her make posters for the causes that, even as a child, consumed her.
Now he realized how little he’d given, how much he had fed off her energy. He’d offered her a shadow, and she had lived in it as placidly as if it were sunshine.
The next morning, he drove to the funeral home, and the director presented the bill like an apology. She was wearing the same business suit, only beige this time. McBride noticed they’d charged $300 for clothes and delivery, but he didn’t care. He started to write out a check, but she told him they preferred a credit card. She handed him a sheet of paper on which she had written in broad loops the name and address of a funeral home where he lived. It didn’t look right.
“So Paula got in touch with you?”
She didn’t know who Paula was.
The moment he got over his shock, he flew into a rage. “You did this on your own? Why didn’t you call me?”
“I did. You didn’t answer.” The woman stood behind her desk, holding out a pen so he could sign the credit slip. She didn’t like his tone.
He scrawled across the bottom and handed the slip back. He asked about Brie Anna, and the woman consulted her watch. “She’s halfway there.”
Tears welled up in his eyes, and when he couldn’t wipe them away, he collapsed into a chair—exploded into loud, angry sobs and pounded on the woman’s desk, weeping and shouting. She called for someone, and a man appeared, but the two of them just stood watching him cry. When he could, he got up and left. No one said a word.
It took him over an hour to get to the airport. He drove aimlessly, letting the GPS recalculate. Once in the air, looking down on the patchwork between the clouds, McBride realized there had been no reporters: at the motel, at the funeral home, at the airport. His daughter and her cause were yesterday’s news—someone else to hate. Before he’d left, he’d texted Paula about the screw up with the funeral homes, and half an hour later, she texted back that she’d got it sorted out.
At home, McBride hung Brie Anna’s clothes in her closet and put the book in her bookcase, wishing he hadn’t destroyed the other one—he wasn’t going to read a novel, but that book he might have read. Neighbors came by, and friends, and he took their food and tried not to hurt their feelings. They thought it was terrible, what had happened, and he agreed it was terrible.
The funeral was impressive: dozens of bouquets and beautiful music, and pictures and video clips of Brie Anna as a girl. McBride kept up his end as best he could, but Paula was right: it didn’t come naturally. His daughter looked as she had at prom, beautiful and distant, in a springy dress with swatches of color—white and blue and magenta. There was a book for people to write their thoughts in, and some of the younger people took a long time. Kids he’d never seen embraced him.
Paula informed him she and her husband intended to endow a scholarship at the college. She didn’t ask for a contribution, and he didn’t offer one. She was composed, polite, friendly to him and everyone else, but she walked with her hands out as if she were balancing. McBride wondered if she’d slept at all since she got home.
The day after the funeral, he slept until noon. Paula would take care of the thank you cards. It occurred to him that he should do the same for the people who had brought food, but he didn’t give a damn. Most of it would go in the trash. He’d be lucky to remember whose pan was whose.
What he did was spend a couple of days online, reading everything he could find about the coal plant and his daughter. Finally, he understood the problem with coal, but he still didn’t care. In the pictures and descriptions, Brie Anna resembled her mother, organizing things and making people happy. Apparently she had been an AAC representative, and the dead man was her boyfriend—there was a picture of them marching and holding hands. Both were wearing hospital masks, and he had a fist in the air. The posts at the bottom of these articles were often brutal and obscene, and he soon stopped reading them. On he second day, he learned that the President, in a news conference given over to other topics, had answered a question about his daughter’s death. He called it an unnecessary tragedy. Nobody asked him what that meant.
A few of her friends called, often in tears, and he asked what must to them have seemed a strange question—what she was like? They were full of stories—funny and touching. She was a listener, she was a talker, she loved to party, she spent half her life in the library. They loved her, and it was amazing how deep that love went. Every night, McBride walked through a local nature preserve she’d been fond of and marveled at his daughter. In all that he’d read and seen, even the ugliest, there was comfort. She had mattered to people.
Paula came by to deliver some of her superfluous food and laughed at the logjam in his refrigerator. She told him she’d got a call from the governor of the state where Brie Anna had been killed. He’d given his condolences, and she’d told him to go to hell. For the first time since the divorce, they kissed; then she patted him on the cheek and left.
He went back to the office, and after a few days, work was the same as it had always been. He let Paula rummage through Brie Anna’s room for things she could put in scrapbooks, and a couple of times, they nearly came to blows. A doctor gave him sleeping pills, but they didn’t work—they just made him dopey the next day. Often he dozed in his La-Z-Boy sitting up and would wake in the middle of the night and look outside as if Brie Anna were out past curfew.
He read some of her books—not the newer ones, but the ones they’d read years ago when she was small. He could almost recite Goodnight Moon from memory—the cows and the balloons and the quiet old lady whispering “hush.” He went through Watership Down twice. It was the last book before she’d decided she was too old to be read to.
Friends courageous enough to broach the subject told him he needed to move on, but move on to what? And why? Even two months after her death he slept sitting up. Sometimes he’d go driving and find himself on the other side of town with no idea how he’d got there.
Then somebody sent him an email with a news link—the driver of the truck had been charged with vehicular manslaughter without alcohol. They said he was paying attention to the people behind him, not to the road in front of him.
McBride marched around the house in celebration. He called Paula and told her the good news. Then he took a walk in the park, and spent a lot of time throwing rocks into the pond.
That night, on impulse, McBride called information and got the number of the driver. He called it and got the man’s wife and told her who he was.
“What do you want?” she demanded
McBride had no idea what he wanted. He said, “Your husband tried to talk to me. I couldn’t handle it till now.”
“He’s in the county,” she said. “He can’t make bond. That should make you happy.”
“It should,” he agreed, “but it doesn’t.”
Her voice dropped a couple of notches. “What’d you want to talk to him about?”
He didn’t know, but when he opened his mouth, it just came out. “I wanted him to tell me what he saw. The details. I can’t see. It’s driving me crazy”
“You think that’s going to help?”
“Nothing’s going to help.”
“Excuse me,” she said, and though he had heard no noise, over the phone it sounded like she had walked into another room and closed the door. “This is what he told me, okay? The first group was the other side of the gate. Once you get by the gate, there’s a curve, and he sped up because that road swings right into the boulevard—you can’t turn left—and they were just there, with their backs to him, walking in the road. The kids heard him and turned around; the old lady just kept walking. He hit the brake, but it’s a big truck, you know? It takes time, even when it’s empty. He didn’t want to hurt anybody, he just wanted to get home.”
McBride had driven trucks—not big ones, but big enough. He knew what she was talking about. He could see his daughter turn. Maybe she was holding hands with the boy and they turned together.
“What’s bail?” he asked.
“$25,000. He can get out on ten percent but he won’t do it. He’s afraid they’re going to make him do a year, and we won’t have anything.”
McBride sat silent for a while, pissed at himself for calling. “I wonder why they were in the road,” he said.
“Mud. That’s what he thinks. The company had bulldozed that area. They’re going to put a wall along that curve—some rock with their name on it.”
He wanted to hang up, he wanted to shout that he didn’t give a damn about the reasons, but he couldn’t say the words, couldn’t fold the phone. Instead, he told her, “I’ve got some money.”
“What are you talking about?”
She knew what he was talking about, she just wanted to hear it, so he explained what he meant, and there were Oh, God’s and Thank you’s, and McBride suffered through them in silence. He wondered if there were a way he could take it back.
She told him about the kids, about the difficulties they were having, but then she turned suspicious. “Why are you doing this?”
He told her the truth: “I don’t know what else to do.”
She was silent for a while, and then she said, “They’re going to fire him now, and the union won’t raise a finger. Everybody just wants it over.”
His left hand with the phone was trembling, but he got the name of the bondsman from her and told her he’d probably need to call back when he found out what they required.
“I’ll be here.”
McBride hung up, then went out and sat on the front stoop. She didn’t sound any older than Brie Anna. Three kids, he thought, and that stupid son-of-a-bitch threw this into her lap. A bad luck guy. McBride had worked with a few. They were always amazed when they fucked up, and they always had great excuses. Sooner or later, if her husband got out of this, there would be something else, and nothing McBride did would change that. For over an hour he contemplated the futility of what he was about to do, then he called the number she’d given him.