Acts of God
Because of the hurricane on the coast, the sitter was two hours late to the McCamey house that Saturday morning. The hurricane had not affected Madison, Georgia, but it had affected the sitter's son who had made the mistake of moving to New Orleans the year before. So the sitter had been on the phone all Saturday morning trying to placate her sister in Texas who had taken the son and his girlfriend in and was getting tired of them, especially the cats which the girlfriend had insisted on bringing to the sister's house.
Because the sitter was late, Mr. William Angus McCamey and Mrs. Amelie Louise Tucker McCamey were alone from seven on Friday night until ten forty-five on Saturday morning, after which it didn't matter anymore whether the sitter was watching out for them.
"I can't stand the bacon she buys," Amelie had begun by saying, at six that Saturday morning when she was trying to get some breakfast going on the new stove her daughter, Anne, had moved into their kitchen the week before. "It won't crisp no matter how long you cook it."
"It's the milk that gets me," Will joined in. "I'd just as soon go on and die as drink that watered-down milk she gets."
"Cream," Amelie added. "It doesn't hurt to have cream for the coffee."
"Let's make some real coffee," Will said. "I'll make it. Where's our percolator." He opened a cabinet and got out the old percolator they had bought together at Lewis Hardware forty years before and took it down and went to the sink and rinsed it out and filled it with water and found the real coffee behind the sugar and started measuring it in.
Amelie passed behind him on her way to get some paper towels for the bacon and he stopped her and put his hands on her back end and held them there. "Bad boy," she said. "Let me finish with this bacon."
Amelie and Will had been in love since the eighth grade at Madison Junior High when Will was the quarterback of the junior high team and Amelie was a cheerleader in a wool skirt that came down below her knees and a white wool sweater with a large M just in front of her new breasts. This was back when cheerleaders watched the football games and only got up to cheer when the team was having a timeout.
The Madison Junior High was a three-story brick building on Lee Street, and it was still in use as a grade school, kindergarten through sixth grade. Many of their fourteen grandchildren and twelve great-grandchildren had gone to school there. Their great-grandchildren played in the school yard where Will gave Amelie her first kiss and where he had pushed her on the swings when the swings were twice as high as the safe ones they have now.
It was in a neighborhood that still boasted mansions and pretty wooden houses, but the houses were inhabited now by people who commuted to Atlanta and weren't from old Madison families like the McCameys and the Tuckers and the Walkers and the Garths. None of the new people belonged to the Daughters of the American Revolution, much less the Children of the Confederacy, and none of them ever came by to say hello to Will and Amelie or tell them they lived in the neighborhood.
Will and Amelie still lived in the white wooden house their daddies had bought for them the week it was discovered they had run off to South Carolina to be married, and with good cause, after what they had been doing after football games the fall they were seniors in high school. Will was the quarterback of the high school team and Amelie had given up being cheerleader to be the drum major of the marching band. Amelie and Will had been in love so long they couldn't remember when it began, although Will said he remembered the first kiss and how the leaves were turning red on the maple trees on the school yard. "They couldn't have been turning red," Amelie always said. "I had on a blue cotton dress with yellow flowers embroidered on the collar. I would not have been wearing that to school in October."
At eighty-six they were still in love and they did not forget what they had done on the front seat of Will's daddy's Ford car or on the screened-in porch of Amelie's Aunt Lucy's house in the country.
Walkerrest, the house was called, with two r's, and it was there that things first got out of hand. Amelie was caring for her aunt one football weekend while her aunt's husband was at a Coca-Cola board meeting in Atlanta. The aunt was crippled from a childhood illness and had no children of her own, but she had a face as lovely as an angel's and never complained or blamed God for having to stay in a wheelchair most of the time.
Will and Amelie did not forget that night at Walkerrest, or later, lying in bed in their new house with Amelie's stomach the size of a watermelon, sleeping in the four-poster bed in the house where they would live for seventy years.
The first baby was a boy named William Tucker so he wouldn't be a junior, and after him were Daniel and Morgan and Peter and Walker and then Jeanne and Jessica and Olivia and Anne.
In all the years Will and Amelie lived in the house they never went to bed without burying their hatchets and remembering they loved each other. They had a gift for being married and they were lucky and they knew it. They even kept on knowing it when their twin boys died at birth and had to be buried out at Walkerrest with their ancestors.
The sitter had come to live with them when they were eighty-four, a year after they had to quit driving and a year before they made their children get the sitter a house of her own.
"Or we shall surely go insane," Amelie protested. "She watches television all day long or listens to the radio. She is not always nice to us. We can not live with that all day and night."
"Night and day," William added. "We have telephones in every room. We won't both break our hips at once with no one looking. Or if we did then the laws of chance will have triumphed over human caution and we will accept our fate."
"Amen," Amelie said. "We can not have her here all day and night. We do not deserve this unkindness."
"We'll get a different lady," their daughter Olivia protested.
"They are all the same," Will said. "We have tried four. Each one is like the rest. Who would have such a job, watching old people to keep them from driving their car?"
"Or drinking sherry in the afternoon," Amelie added. "As if I ever had more than two small sherries at once in my life."
"All right," their daughter Anne agreed. "We will get her a place nearby and she can be here in the daytime."
"From ten until four," William bargained.
"From seven to dark," Anne said.
"A costly cruelty," Amelie charged.
"The insurance pays," Olivia said. "You know that, Momma. And you know we love you."
The new sitter program had been in place for seven months when Hurricane Katrina came across Florida and grew into a typhoon and slammed into the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Louisiana and caused the sitter's son to flee to Texas with his girlfriend, causing the sitter to have to stay on the phone for two hours begging her sister not to kick them out until they found another place to stay. Then to sit and cry for another hour and dread going to the McCameys' house to have Mr. and Mrs. McCamey keep asking her to turn down the television set. I'll just stay home and watch the stories in my own house, the sitter told herself. I'm depressed from this hurricane and I hate my selfish sister and I wish her husband would just shoot the cats or take them to the woods and turn them loose. The sitter cried long and bitter tears and then opened a package of sweet rolls and sat down to watch the news on her own television set.
At seven thirty she called the McCameys' house to tell Mr. McCamey she would not be in until later in the day, perhaps not until afternoon.
At seven forty-five Will finished his third cup of coffee and polished off his eggs and told Amelie, "Let's go to the store. I am tired of that white-trash woman telling us what to eat. Let's go shopping."
"In the car?" Amelie asked, giggling.
"In our car," he answered.
Thirty minutes later they were dressed and out in the garage climbing into the last Pontiac they had ever bought from Walker Pontiac on Elm and Main in downtown Madison. It was twelve years old and their son Walker had been begging them to give it to his grandson, but they had refused, writing a check for five thousand dollars to the boy instead. The McCameys' yardman kept it polished and ran the motor once a week and checked the oil and tires. It was dark blue and so comfortable that sometimes at night they backed it out of the garage and sat in it in the yard and cuddled up and talked about their children and the church and the state.
Now, on this sun-drenched Saturday morning with Amelie by his side, Will backed the Pontiac out of the garage, turned expertly around in the yard and drove out onto the street leading to the grocery store. The old grocery store was gone from that part of town, of course, and the new one was on a new road going south from town toward the new subdivisions being built by Little Buddy Scott, whose daddy had played ball with their son, Peter.
It was twenty minutes to the grocery store and they sailed along at twenty-five miles an hour and turned into the parking lot. Will got out and came around the hood and opened the door and helped his bride out of her carriage and she took his arm and they walked into the new Winn-Dixie store.
They had hardly made it to the produce section when they met a woman they knew who played tennis with their tennis-playing granddaughter. "Mr. Will," she exclaimed. "Miss Amelie. How good to see you. What are you doing at the grocery store?"
"Trying to buy some bacon and some ice cream," Will answered.
"We ran away from the wretched sitter," Amelie said. "Don't tell Anne on us."
"I never would," the woman said. "Let me walk around with you. I'll help you find things."
By the time the McCameys had their cart loaded with groceries they had a retinue of four young friends, all praising their courage and promising silence.
At the checkout stand there were seven people waiting to help them into the car. Jeannie Mayes and Margo Hight put the groceries in the backseat although Amelie would have preferred to have them in the trunk.
Their retinue stood gaily waving as Will and Amelie drove carefully across the parking lot and turned onto the road to home.
"Let's ride down and look at the new subdivision," Will said. "Just take fifteen minutes, there and back."
"Let's do," Amelie agreed and slid over beside him and put her hand on his thigh as she had always done all their years of riding in cars together. She slid it down toward his knee, of course, as she was a lady and to the manor born.
"Look at that," Will said, as they approached the subdivision. "They're building a swimming pool at the foot of the hill. I'd never build a pool down there. Little Buddy must be going into debt on all of this. I heard he was in debt to every bank in Atlanta."
Will turned the wheel to drive in closer to the construction site. The fence had been taken down to make room for the tractors making the excavation and Will was able to drive right up to the beginning of the downcline. The sun was halfway up its arc in a clear blue Georgia sky. The sunlight on the windshield was brilliant and Will let it warm his face as it clouded his vision. His loins stirred at the warmth of Amelie's hand on his thigh, his heart turned over at the beauty of the morning. He touched the accelerator with a light foot as the front wheels went past the nonexistent berm and the Pontiac went straight down the incline and plowed into a concrete pillar. Amelie's hand pulled at the cloth of his pants and her head moved fast into the windshield and she was gone so fast she could not have counted to three. Mr. Will couldn't see the blood because he was not wearing a seat belt either and he had broken his neck on the steering wheel.
It did not hurt. It doesn't hurt, Mr. Will thought. Why doesn't it hurt? I think we are in the swimming pool, but there is no water and nothing hurts and that is that, I suppose, for now.
"Mr. Will," Little Buddy Scott was screaming. He had been climbing up onto a tractor when he saw the Pontiac fall into the pool. He climbed down from the tractor and came running like the flying halfback he had been, but it was too late. "Mr. Will," he screamed. "Can you open the door?"
Will raised his head a fraction of an inch from the steering wheel and looked into Little Buddy's blue-green eyes, just like his grandmother's had been. "There's ice cream in the back seat, Little Buddy. Be sure someone puts that in the freezer." Then he put his head back on the wheel and time stopped for him.
"A good thing about trauma," the doctor told his sons and daughters. "It narrows the focus. It's the accident victim's friend. I doubt if he even knew it happened."
"It was the sitter's fault," Anne kept insisting. "I knew we couldn't trust that woman."
"You are too quick to blame," Walker told her. "The fault lies with the hurricane. She was tending to her family."
"They are gone," Olivia wept.
"The old fools," Jessica wept beside her. "They never listened to a thing but themselves in their whole lives."
"Don't say that out loud," her husband, David, cautioned. He was an Episcopal minister now, although he had been raised a south Georgia Baptist. He always tried to grab the high moral ground any chance he got. "Acts of God are not caused by human beings. They are of the Lord and he knows why he made them."
"Just leave me alone," Jessica said. "I'll say anything I like in my own mother's house."
"We're in the funeral home, Momma," her daughter put in. "We aren't in Grandmomma's house."
"How could they have done this to us," Jessica kept wailing. "After everything we did to make them safe."
"He told me to put the ice cream in the freezer." Little Buddy Scott drew near and joined the conversation. Jessica McCamey had been his Sunday School teacher and his ideal woman from the time he was seven until he was grown. He put his hand on her arm and looked deep into her eyes. "He was not in pain, Jessica, and your Momma was already dead. There are a lot worse ways to go when you are as old as they were. This could have been a blessing in disguise."
Jessica moved in nearer to him. She had always thought Little Buddy was a good-looking man. From the time he was a football hero until he started being a wealthy man she had had her eye on him. Well, I'm sixty years old, she remembered. He's Jessica Anne's age, not mine.
"Thank you for coming to help them," she told him, letting him keep hold of her arm. "I have to accept this, I know, but it's taking time, Little Buddy. I was at the beauty parlor getting a manicure when they called me. Can you imagine what that was like?"
"I was climbing onto a tractor," he agreed. "And it was my swimming pool, my wall of concrete that was hardly dry."
"I was in my office," Walker said. "Anything can happen at any time."
"Let's pray," David offered. "Let's hold hands and say a prayer of thanksgiving for their lives. We're a family. Let's remember that we are one."
"Invite the sitter to the funeral," Jessica put in, to show off for Little Buddy what a nice lady she was. "Let's not forget her pain and guilty conscience."
While they were arguing and mourning and chattering and all the things human beings do with their wonderful voices and memories, especially in times of death, which is the worst thing they have to dread and contend and struggle with, the doors of the funeral home opened and the oldest son came in with his retinue. William Tucker had grown up to become a graduate of West Point and a four-star general and lived in Washington, D.C., and only came home for weddings and funerals. He came in wearing his uniform with his wife of forty years by his side and two of his sons and one of his daughters and her daughters. They were immediately surrounded by his brothers and sisters and taken into the adjoining room to view the bodies of his parents.
"A sad but brilliant death," he pronounced. "I didn't want Daddy to be an old man but this was more than I expected. What can I do to help?" he asked.
"Help us decide about pallbearers," his brother Daniel said. " There are so many children and they will all want to be one."
At the sitter's house the sitter was crying her heart out to her next-door neighbor. "It's all my fault," she wailed. "I was derelict. I didn't do my duty."
"They were old fools," the neighbor said. "Their children should have taken away the car. No one can blame you. You called them. You said you would be late."
"Late," the sitter wailed. "Oh, I was far too late."
"Well, they called and asked you to attend the funeral," the sitter's other neighbor put in. "I think you better start finding something to wear. I have a black dress if you don't have one."
"I can't go," the sitter said. "How can I show my face."
"They were old fools," the next-door neighbor said again. "Everyone knows that's true."