Tuesday morning, Ft. Smith, Arkansas
Austin sat in the back seat of the VanderLeiden’s Jeep, quiet and pale. Kate asked him if he was all right and he answered with a simple “yes” and nothing more.
For the first hour of driving down the mountain to the highway, none of them talked. Poppy, in an effort to relieve the tension, slid a CD into the player.
“Can’t you play something else?” Kate asked after a few minutes.
“Sure, but what’s wrong with this one? I thought you liked Gaither Vocal Band.”
“I do. But this one has that song Bill wrote for his grandson, all about how he’ll be there for the boy and all, and it always makes me cry.”
“You’re right. I never liked that one much myself.” He ejected the offending disk and inserted another.
After a few minutes Kate sighed. “That’s better.”
“You always cry when we play this one, too.” He poked her arm.
“I know. But it’s a good kind of crying. There’s that poem about Heaven on it, and how when we get to Heaven we’ll be able to dance and play like children, and nobody dies there…” She swallowed hard. “I cry because it is so inexpressibly beautiful. I feel clean and young and healed.” She took a lace-edged handkerchief from her purse and dabbed her eyes.
They rode on without talking, listening together.
After a while Kate said, “I never thought of it this way before, but the tears I shed when I think about Heaven are grateful, healing tears, and the other song, the one about the grandfather telling his grandson ‘I’ll be there,’ while sweet in its own way, hurts so much because of all the ways we were not and are not and never will ‘be there’ for Christina.” She glanced back and saw that Austin was asleep, slumped crookedly in his seat belt. “It’s part of life’s inescapable sorrow. We can’t spare our children or grandchildren all pain and trouble, no matter how intensely we want to.”
Poppy nodded agreement. “It probably wouldn’t be good for them if we could.” After a few miles, “‘Good for them,’ whatever that means,” he said gruffly. “It seems so senseless. Christina growing up without parents. Then, in spite of everything we told her, she marries that useless piece of dirt—“
“Remember what we learned about bitterness, Poppy,” Kate admonished.
“What was it Christina says?” Poppy wondered. “Something about how if she doesn’t forgive Richard, she gives him permission to live inside her head rent-free.”
They both laughed, waking Austin.
“Are we almost there?”
“Not yet, dear.” Kate answered.
“Think about that little guy back there,” she said softly. “It must be terrifying to not even know where he is.”
“Yep. We need to take him to his family as fast as we can, but I’m not going to drive over the speed limit. If we get caught speeding it will just slow us down.”
“How far yet?” Austin wanted to know.
“You didn’t sleep very long, son,” Poppy replied. “We still have a good two and a half hours before McAlester. There we’ll meet our granddaughter, Christina—“
“Tina, right? She’s the one Jake loves, right?” Austin interrupted, excited.
“Yes, Tina is what Jake calls her. You’ll love her, too, I know you will.”
“Jake says she is a real babe!” Austin giggled.
“Did he call her a babe?” Kate asked.
“No. But he says she’s GORGuss.”
“I should hope he doesn’t talk about her like that. Babe!” Kate scolded, indignant.
“Kate’s a babe, too, isn’t she Austin?” Poppy asked into the rearview mirror.
“And you’re an old windbag,” Kate said, slapping his knee. “Now tend to your driving.”
Austin followed that last exchange with a furrowed brow, and then, probably because he wasn’t the center of attention, had more questions for them.
“Why do I have on these clothes? Why can’t I wear my own clothes? Why do I have to keep my cap on? At all times,” he said, doing the best imitation of Denny that he could manage.
“I thought you liked the shirt Denny brought you, boy, and the shoes, too.” Poppy said.
“Sure I do. Shoes, ‘specially. They’re cool. But why did Kate wash my shirt if I can’t wear it any more?”
“You heard the announcer on TV. The police have been told to be on the lookout for you. They have a description of you and what you were wearing,” Kate said, “and with different clothes, like these—Denny borrowed them from his nephew—and a cap to cover your hair, they won’t be so quick to recognize you.”
Austin stood up, resting his chin on his folded arms on the back of Kate’s seat.
“Now, Austin, you sit down and buckle your seat belt.” Kate ordered sternly.
“But why? Poppy’s a good driver. I’m safe here.”
“It’s the law,” Poppy said, sneaking a sidelong glance at Kate. He had often expressed his displeasure with children who argued with adults.
Austin complied, albeit reluctantly, and sat quietly for a few minutes, but eventually returned to his line of inquiry.
“If a policeman knows who I am, won’t he take me to Mamma and Daddy in his police car?” As he thought of the possibility he became even more animated. “I never rode in a police car before. Maybe he’d play his siren—whooeee, whooeee, whooeee-e!”
So annoyed was Poppy with Austin’s sound effects, it took a few seconds to realize what he was hearing. An Arkansas highway patrol car pulled alongside, siren screaming, and motioned him toward the edge of the road.
“Cool!” Austin breathed, eyes wide.
Poppy pulled over and lowered the window.
The patrolman, a smooth-cheeked stocky male in his mid-twenties, stepped out of his vehicle, hitched up his pants and leaned into the window. The plastic nametag on his uniform shirt identified him as Brad Williams.
“Something wrong, officer?” Poppy asked.
“Show me your driver’s license and registration, Gramps,” he said, slowly and loudly at Poppy.
Kate reached into the glove compartment and found an envelope containing the registration. Poppy pulled his driver’s license out of his wallet and presented both items to the officer.
“You 75, old man?” He asked after studying the driver’s license.
“Yessir. I’ll be 76 in November. What seems to be the problem?”
Williams didn’t answer. He shook the registration out of the envelope and a small piece of paper fluttered to the ground.
“Right there’s your problem,” he said, bending to pick it up. “Your renewal sticker. It needs to be on your license plate, not in an envelope inside the vehicle. I pulled you over because your auto tags are expired.”
“I’m sorry, officer. I renewed by mail and I guess I didn’t get around to putting the sticker on the plate. It slipped my mind, I’m afraid.”
“That’s the trouble with old people on the road. Things ‘slip their minds,’ like renewing auto tags or driver’s licenses, or like leaving the renewal sticker in and not on the car. Half the time they forget how to drive. They shouldn’t be allowed behind the wheel.”
His radio crackled, interrupting his diatribe. He stepped back to the patrol car and reached in for the handset. After listening for a few seconds, he said “I’m on it,” replaced the hand mike and returned to the Jeep. “You’re in luck, Gramps. I have another call, so I’m not issuing a citation this time.” Glancing briefly at Kate and at Austin in the back seat, he directed his remarks to Poppy. “You be sure to have a vision check, and stay home after dark, hear?”
With that he hurried back to the patrol car, spoke briefly into his hand mike, and sped away, siren wailing.
They sat silently while the siren faded and the car disappeared in the distance.
Kate let out a long, shaky breath. “The nerve! The colossal arrogance! Wormy little smart apple. Gramps! Who does he think he is? I’m going to report this whole incident. I’m sure he violated at least a dozen rules. Did you remember his name?”
Poppy laughed. “Let him go. Forget it! We might be violating a rule or two ourselves. That little incident could have turned out a whole lot worse than it did.” He looked into the back seat. “Hey, Austin. You wanted to ride in a police car. How come you’re so quiet? That was your big chance.”
Kate glanced back and saw Austin’s red-rimmed eyes. She shook her head at Poppy, warning him not to continue his gentle teasing.
“Don’t worry, Austin, dear,” she said, “We’ll drive as fast as we dare to so you can see your Mama soon. Someday maybe your Daddy can take you to the police station and a nice policeman will show you the inside of a squad car.”
Austin nodded. “Yeah, but not if the policeman is crabby. That man was too crabby. And he talked mean to Poppy.”