KILLED BY CAR AT 12TH
Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of
Volume 13, Number 1
Copyright © 2018
by Leah Browning, Editor.
All future rights to
in the Apple Valley
Review are retained by
the individual authors
Fiction by Joseph Cummins
My father was a shambling kind of guy, loose and rangy with a
charming quick smile, but inside he was damaged goods. It was
painful to see him at Mass, hunched over on the kneeler, face
scrunched into his steepled hands. It wasn’t normal for a man to pray
My sister Edna and I watched him from an upstairs window one
fall day as he paused in raking the leaves to stare up into the sky. His
“He’s reciting the Memorare,” she said.
“How can you tell?”
“Watch.” She stared at him intently, then began to recite:
“Remember O most gracious Virgin Mary, that ever was it known,
that anyone who fled to Thy protection, implored Thy help, or sought
Thy intercession . . .”
Her words fit the movement of his lips perfectly.
“That’s pretty good.”
Edna was pretty and a little bit evil and had seemed invulnerable
to me, but something had happened at school at the beginning of the
year—the arrival of a new girl, an incident in the lunchroom. I was
shocked, one day, to walk past her bedroom and find her sitting on
her bed crying with the door wide open.
When my father started raking leaves again, we went back to
looking at the Rosemary photos we’d stolen from a wooden box he
kept in the bottom of his bill-paying desk. Most of them were taken
in and around their old house on Lawrence Street, downtown.
Rosemary had light-colored eyes that came across as intelligent and
watchful even in the faded black and white of the old photos, and
brown hair, cut short. The only photo not taken on Lawrence was
her formal First Communion picture, in which she stood in a
photographer’s studio, head crowned with a garland of lilies, clasping
a prayer book.
Edna turned the picture over and read the inscription on the back
out loud, affecting an insipid whisper:
To dear Rosemary, from her mother, on the Day of all Days.
Beneath it, scrawled in a different hand in pencil, were the words:
Born June 2, 1915
Died August 30, 1927
Killed by car at 12th & Collingwood
These Edna read in a hard-bitten voice, talking out of the side
of her mouth, like a narrator in an old newsreel. Then she giggled.
Rosemary had been crossing the street holding my father’s hand when
a drunken undertaker came tearing down 12th Street in a fast
Packard, hit her and sent her flying through the air. The Packard just
clipped my father, breaking his leg in three places, an injury that kept
him in an Army personnel office in Cleveland during the war.
I got up on my knees, my hands tightly clasped as if in pain:
“Remember O most gracious Virgin Rosemary, that ever was it
known, that anyone who fled to Thy protection, implored Thy help,
or sought Thy intercession . . .”
Edna gave a whoop of laughter and the door opened and my
father said: “Robert, time to get going.”
Edna, her face red, affected a casual backward lean, stretching
out her legs to cover the Rosemary pictures, but as my father turned
around to leave I snatched one of the photos and shoved it in my back
pocket. “Be careful with that,” Edna hissed, but I ignored her and
followed him down the hall. As we passed my parents’ bedroom, I
glanced in to see my mother resting on the shadowy bed, her hands
folded over her still-mounded stomach, her feet pointed straight up.
It was odd to see her that way, shut in behind drawn shades on a
sunny fall day, but she and the baby, who was lying like a withery
exclamation point on a towel beside her, needed their rest.
As my father and I walked through the back yard to our car, Mr.
Smith, the old widower next door, parked his rake against the fence
and leaned over with a solicitous look.
“Bill, how is everyone holding up?”
My father ducked his head and shuffled his feet a little. “Best we
can, I guess.”
Mr. Smith nodded as if this were some sage bit of wisdom. Like
everyone else, he loved my father, loved the idea of him, the way he
looked. That day, my father wore khaki pants, beat-up loafers with
argyle socks, and a faded khaki belt from his Army days. Plus a red
and black plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up. With his strong chin,
short blond hair, slight limp, and perpetually rueful smile, he reminded
them of some feel-good movie star—Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart,
one of those.
What must it feel like, I often wondered, to have people happy
to see you. I was in sixth grade, short, bespectacled and chubby, and
had to plant myself in front of other humans to get them to notice me.
Although I was plagued by my own bouts of secret weeping, in my
better moments I thought the best thing to do was accept my fate and,
from behind my carapace of pudge, study the world. This felt
redemptive, why I wasn’t yet sure. I had a mind that captured what
I thought of as “world details.” I didn’t go looking for them—they
simply came to me and stayed. Like my mother’s feet, pointing
straight up. As I got into the car with my father I saw them, little
cathedrals of feet, each toe a spire. And then, of course, there was
Rosemary. Why was a girl so beautiful, with such intense pale eyes,
so soon to die?
My father started up the station wagon and we drove to the
rectory, a matter of only a few blocks since we lived in the shadow of
our parish church. We parked in the driveway and went around to
the back yard, where we came upon our pastor, Father Koltzer,
skinning a deer with a huge knife—the deer was hanging from an apple
tree by a rope around its neck. I took in the flaps of skin, the marbled
flesh. Father Koltzer wore a bloodstained wife-beater undershirt
along with shiny black priest pants and shoes and had a long-necked
bottle of Hamm’s in the hand that wasn’t holding the knife.
“Nice buck there, Father,” my father said.
“Got him yesterday up near Cheboygan,” Father Koltzer replied.
“One shot and down he went.”
He stepped closer to my father and said something I couldn’t
hear. As the two men talked in low voices, I went around to the back
porch, dodging both the swinging deer, whose tongue, I noted, was
firmly gripped between its teeth, and the Virgin Mary, who stood in
her little garden grotto, her arms outspread in a pose that was not
precisely welcoming, I felt, more like: Okay, yes, here I am, but I’m
a little tired today, so if you’re expecting any miraculous
intercessions, you’re fresh out of luck.
With effort, I lifted the box of canned goods and rice and pasta
and staggered through the yard with it. The juxtaposition of deer
corpse and Virgin Mary overloaded my brain so that I didn’t
recognize anything, as sometimes happened with world details. I saw
the two men, but who the hell were they? A red brick building, rising
against the pale blue sky, caught my attention. Quite beautiful—a
castle? In the far distance along the horizon-line, a humble little plane,
flying low. Then I unlatched the back of the station wagon with my
elbow and dropped in the box and the click and thump of that
movement brought me back. The tall man—it was my father—walked
back to the car, glanced at me impatiently, and got into the driver’s
seat. Father Koltzer returned to scraping skin off the deer, which
swung heavily under his ministrations. The castle in the distance was
my school, with its 1930s-era towers. World details being what they
were, unexpected, capricious, I saw that little sickly baby lying next to
my mother, its arms rising and falling feebly, in jerky rhythm.
We left our neighborhood behind and passed through a
succession of neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city, the houses
growing smaller and smaller, until there were no more houses except
farm houses, with farm stands out front with blocky hand-lettered
signs—CORN. PUMPKINS. SQUASH.—words that made a
sonorous sound in my ears.
I said: “We are on our way to a nunnery.”
My father was silent. He appeared to be concentrating on the
completely empty two-lane highway, his eyes flicking back and forth,
his hands at ten and two.
We stopped at Billy’s, the little restaurant, pulling into the gravel
parking lot, little bits of stone pinging away from our wheels. To get
inside you walked through a dark door, into a little dark vestibule, and
then through a second door. Billy, whoever he was, had decorated
the knotty pine walls with the license plates of fifty states and there
was also a model train that rumbled around the entire wall of the
restaurant and Christmas lights hanging from the ceiling year round.
The silverware was curiously light and the napkins frayed with the
slightest grease, leaving little white pills on your chin and lips. The
placemats featured a road map showing a cartoon family journeying
throughout the state, stopping at various sites to visit Paul Bunyan, or
the Rouge plants, or Grand Rapids and its furniture factory, or the
locks up at the Soo.
Men sat at a bar against one side of the restaurant, drinking and
watching a college football game. When the waitress came over to
pour water into our glasses, she put her hand on my back and patted
me slightly, sending me a message, just like the Virgin Mary: I know
you are a sad chubster, but you will find that we don’t care
about that here, although we pretend to.
“How are things going in school, Robert?” I said to my father, as
he bit into his hamburger.
My father looked at me, as I hoped he would. His eyes were
as pale as any reptile’s.
“What?” he said.
“That’s what you would say to me if you were actually saying
anything to me,” I told him.
“Are you being smart?”
“Yes,” I said, hoping he might just reach out and slam me one.
The hit was always there inside of him—the sharp slap across the
face, the whack against the side of the head—but it never came out.
He continued his meal in silence, this strange man, an American gem,
his beauty like some gorgeous camouflage his soul threw up to keep
the world looking in the wrong direction.
There were other pictures in that wooden box, of my father
alone. He hadn’t been a handsome child by any stretch. In his
pictures with Rosemary, he was scrawny and his ears stuck out and
his chin was pointy, like a rat’s nose. After the accident is when he
turned lovely, began to shine. There he is, in his Scout uniform, his
hair slicked back, accepting some plaque on a school stage with a
Knights of Columbus banner draped behind him. There he is again
in a Detroit News photo, in his high school baseball uniform, standing
at home plate, bat cocked—since he couldn’t run very fast because
of his leg, they had a runner in a sprinter’s crouch, ready to take off if
he hit the ball. They made an exception for him and they were happy
to do it.
People made exceptions for me, too, plenty of them. I didn’t
have to go to the make-out parties kids had started having in other
kids’ basements—I got an exception so that I could stay home alone
and masturbate. I didn’t have to raise my hand in class, since the
teacher never called on me anyway. I was granted an exception. My
sister had made an exception to her enduring contempt for me to
briefly let me into her life. This was an exception that wouldn’t last,
but it was not a perfect world we lived in.
“How was your meal?” said the waitress as she brought over the
“Perfect,” my father said.
“It’s always good to see you two on Saturdays,” she said.
“Father and son outing, always nice.”
“Sure is,” my father chuckled.
I got up and walked past the bar and down a short corridor.
There was a pay phone on the wall and I fished a dime out of my
pocket and called home.
“Hi, it’s me,” I said.
“Nice job. You woke them up.”
I heard the baby crying in the background.
“Why is it even home?”
“It is not home,” Edna said, beginning to work herself up. “She
is home. There is nothing they can do for her at the hospital. She’s
better off at home until they can figure out—”
The extension clicked and my mother said: “Who is this? Edna,
who are you talking to?”
Edna hung up.
“Hi, mom,” I said.
“Is everything okay?”
“We’re at the restaurant.”
“Why are you calling?”
“I wanted to check on her. I can hear her crying.”
The baby had a strange cry, not really loud, kind of a mewling.
My mother made a sharp throat-clearing noise. “What’s going
“He’s acting like he doesn’t know me. I can’t take it anymore.”
My mother was silent. The baby mewled in the background. It
was a crime to have a sickly baby at home. It infected everything, the
normal course of events.
“Why don’t you take it back to the hospital?” I asked her.
“Robbie, don’t do this.”
I leaned my head against the pay phone. The time for my dime
was running out—pretty soon I’d get the message about depositing
more money. I had another dime, but I wasn’t going to do that.
“Are you there?”
I took out the picture of Rosemary, now creased from being in
my back pocket, and stared at it. It was one where she was standing
next to my father on the front steps of their house on Lawrence, one
block over from Collingwood. Her arm was around him. He looked
faintly bewildered, as he usually did. The thing about Rosemary was
how wild her eyes were, wild and trapped.
“I’m here,” I said.
Edna came back on the phone, sounding weirdly matter of fact.
“Mom. The baby is blue.”
My mother’s voice rose: “Tell your father to get home. Right
After we left the highway we drove down a long road between
pretty fields, through a forest of tall trees, and there it was, the convent
of the silent Carmelites, a large building of weathered red stone with a
small chapel with stained glass windows attached. My father parked
the car in the visitors’ lot and waited while I opened the tailgate and
got the box of food out. We entered a silent vestibule paneled in dark
wood. There were two straight-backed chairs and a shiny table
stacked neatly with little brochures about the convent.
The sister who was allowed to speak appeared from a hallway.
“We’re glad you remembered us again today,” she said.
She smiled. Except for her nun clothes she was extremely
normal looking and sounding. Today, I could have sworn she was
chewing gum. I tried to catch her at it but she saw me trying to catch
her and stopped chewing and held her mouth very still. Immediately
on seeing her, my father’s shoulders sagged and he leaned towards
her. “Sister,” he began. Then he started to cry—to sniffle, really, and
it was horrendously embarrassing. Edna sometimes came with us and
she thought he was in love with this nun. He basically just collapsed
into his worst self in front of her, which I guess was love the way Edna
“Sister, can we pray?”
She led him down the corridor to the chapel without touching
him, but as if she were tugging him by an invisible leash of air. At one
point, she turned around and smiled back at me with her mouth still
closed and said: I trust you to do the right thing, which was a much
nicer conversation than either the Virgin Mary or the waitress had had
Seeing my father trudging along, I realized that he loved this little
baby girl and that by the time he saw her again, she would be dead.
Should I tell him what my mother had said? Oh, I forgot, the baby
is blue and Mom told me on the phone we needed to get home
My arms ached fiercely, holding the box like that, and I put it
down on the table. There was a tiny doorbell set into the wall next to
what looked like a half door, and I pressed it and the sound of
rumbling machinery started up. When it stopped, I opened the door
into the dumbwaiter, which always smelled of dust and polish
simultaneously. I loaded the box inside and pressed the bell and the
sound of machinery came again, old machinery, nothing sleek or new
or humming, but cranking and unsteady. Finally, it lurched to a stop.
After a few minutes, I could hear it beginning its slow descent.
I looked down the corridor, but my father and the nun had
disappeared. When the dumbwaiter landed again, I opened the door
and there was a holy card—they always sent one down, by way of
thanks. This one was a picture of the tormented Saint Sebastian,
tied to a tree, stuck full with arrows. I took out the picture of
Rosemary and my father on Lawrence Street, smoothed it as best I
could, buzzed the bell and sent it back up.
Joseph Cummins has published short fiction in The Carolina
Quarterly, Sleet Magazine, The View From Here, Blue Lake
Review, and Chagrin River Review. He is also the author of a
novel, The Snow Train.
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