At Four in the Afternoon

“At Four in the Afternoon” [from A Fish in the Moonlight]

[1950: Every Sunday, almost without fail, we drove out of the city to visit my aunt and uncle on their farm. My brother and I loved to play in their three-story chicken coup, eat strawberries from my aunt’s garden, and explore the old shed where my uncle kept artifacts of a lifetime. One Sunday, however, we were surprised to find them gone. For a while my brother and I went through our usual routines, but somehow, without my aunt and uncle, it just didn’t seem the same.  Here is an excerpt from the end of that story.]

Then we heard my father calling out “Boys! Boys!” We ran back to the house. My parents were standing beside the 1938 Dodge, and Mother said that we had better start back for the city. “Perhaps they’ve gone on a short vacation. Without a phone, we don’t always keep up on their plans.” My dad still looked puzzled, as if he wanted to say, “But they’re always here on Sundays. They’ve always been.” All that he could do was repeat what Mother had said, “We shouldn’t wait any longer. We need to drive back.”

As I was about to get into the back seat, my mother reached into the glove compartment and, pulling out a pad and pencil, said, “Here, Sid, why don’t you leave a note on the back door telling them we were here.”

I got back out and walked slowly to the door. Stooping down and resting the pad on one leg, I wrote:

Dear Uncle Willie and Aunt Missy, We came by to see you today, same time as we usually do. But you weren’t here. We had a good time. John and I played in the chicken hotel and then the shed, and the strawberries were good. But it wasn’t the same without you. See you next Sunday, OK?
Love, Sid junior

Then, just before I pinned the note on the door, I looked at my watch. It was four o’clock, and so at the top I put a “4 PM.”

Two hours after we got back to the city, there was a call from my Aunt Grace. She lived in a small town about an hour from Uncle Willie and Aunt Missy. My dad took the phone. When he was finished, he asked the three of us to come into the living room. He looked grim. In very simple words Dad told us that Uncle Willie and Aunt Missy had died. While traveling home that afternoon on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, they’d been hit head-on by another driver who had crossed the median and ran right into them. Uncle Willie and Aunt Missy had died at about four in the afternoon. After hearing the news from the state police, Aunt Grace had gone to Embryville to make some preparations for the funeral. On her way back, she had stopped at their house and seen my note on the door.

That night John asked if he could sleep in my room. As we lay there in the dark we talked about Uncle Willie and Aunt Missy. About their not being able to have children. About the country-fried steak and new potatoes Aunt Missy always served. About the strawberry field. And the chicken hotel. About the treasures in the shed. About being Uncle Willie’s “boys.” Then we tried to fall asleep, each pretending, for the sake of the other, that we had.