This Great Society - Writing


Illustration: Mark Gunderson

Heather McDonald: Mama had a Dream the Night Dale Earnhardt Died
Illustration: Mark Gunderson


          I tried easing myself down into the lawn chair in the corner of the living room, but the metal legs still creaked and scraped the floor. I looked up to see if Mama had noticed; I’d already dug a mess of cuts in the linoleum. The sliced white plastic had curled up, and she hated seeing that gray cement underneath.
          But Mama hadn’t noticed. She’d leaned back in her recliner with her big white tennis shoes propped up in the air. Her glasses, pink plastic frames, reflected the TV. The rest of her, her yellow t-shirt, her thick arms, had sunk into the chair’s cracked leather folds.
          “Dougie, I had a dream last night,” she said.
          She pointed her toe at the yellow sofa across from her. Even covered in plastic, she never let me sit there.
          “Dale Earnhardt came in and sat right there on your daddy’s couch. He was wearing a jumpsuit, had his helmet tucked up under his arm,” she said.
          She watched the TV as the news replayed yesterday’s crash. The guys at the shop had ESPN on all day, and I’d seen the last lap a hundred times. Junior was off the front with Waltrip, and Dale rode right behind them, blocking the pack. Then, suddenly, Dale swerved around and smacked into the wall, head on. His door popped off. The hood flew over the windshield. He rolled down the track onto Shrader’s front bumper. Shrader nudged him sideways to the centerfield grass, almost like he was carrying him. Smoke was everywhere. Firefighters ran over in yellow rubber suits.
          The newscaster said Dale hit the wall at 180 miles an hour.
          Mama pointed her cigarette at the couch.
          “I swear he was sitting right there. His jumpsuit was all white. Not a smudge on him. Now, I don’t know things like your daddy did, but that must be about impossible after Daytona,” she said.
          Dad was a mechanic and drove a furniture truck for extra money. He’d been hauling from Marion to Hickory when he rolled his semi on I-40. The highway patrol said he probably nodded off. I was nine years old. Mama called me “honey” the whole day of the funeral.
          Now I was 28 and worked at AutoZone. I liked cars good enough.
          “I heard it gets hot on that track,” I said.
          “Well, he just sat there. I offered him something to drink, but he didn’t say anything. So I started doing my wordy find. I think it was for Presidents’ names. Then, Dale cleared his throat. You know, like when somebody wants your attention. So I said, ‘Mr. Earnhardt, can I help you?’ But he just sat there. He’s got that mustache and big sunglasses, and you can’t see his face. You just can’t tell if he’s mad or not.”
          “We got black t-shirts with him standing like that. I would have brought you one, but they sold out by noon,” I said.
          Mama shook her head as she blew more smoke out her nose.
          “Dougie, you know I don’t need any of that crap. Anyway, I told Dale, I said, ‘My husband, Jerry Howard, he was on a pit crew over in Hickory way back when.’ But Dale just kept staring at me. Now, you know how everyone liked your Daddy. He was popular for being as quiet as he was. Good with engines, too. All those stockcar boys asked for him, even after he died. They just kept calling, wanting Jerry for a race in Wilkesboro or Rockingham. But Dale’s just sitting there with those sunglasses. He’s not saying a thing. I thought he’d hit his head so hard, he can’t remember anything. Then he starts rattling off a list of things he needs. New tires, oil, something in the radiator.”
          I yanked my work shirt out of my waist band. I didn’t know much about radiators; I’d just figured out all the different kinds of oil.
          “I could have helped,” I said.
          “Well, I just told him straight to his face, I said, ‘Dale - you’re dead.' And you know what? He just shrugged. He said, ‘I know, Brenda. I know.’”
          Mama let out a long train of smoke that puffed up around her black peppered hair. She flicked her ash on the wobbly side table Dad had salvaged from one his loads. I still couldn’t figure out which leg was shorter than the others.
          The news showed them cutting Dale out of the car. A blue tarp hid the windshield. Then they went to victory lane. Dale Junior had gotten second place. After a crewman talked into his ear, he slipped on his ball cap and ran towards center field.
          “They’re already going on about how Junior ought to win next year. Poor boy’s daddy is barely even cold,” said Mama.
          They showed the ambulance speeding down the highway. EMT’s gave Dale CPR all the way to the hospital.
          Then the news went live to the Earnhardt garage in Charlotte. Fans had put flowers all over the front gate and sat in the road with candles. People held their three fingers in the air, Dale’s signature salute. A little boy cried on the curb.
          “Poor thing,” said Mama.
          I’d sunk in the lawn chair’s nylon seat. My rear was almost to the floor. I gripped the armrests to lift myself up, but leaned too far left, and then jerked to the right. The chair legs tore into the linoleum. The metal screeched against the cement underneath. Mama flinched and looked at me for the first time that night.
          “What is wrong with you?” she asked.
          She jabbed the remote towards the T.V. and clicked up the volume.
          Cigarette smoke hung over the yellow sofa. Dad was small; he never took more than a foot of that couch. I could guess what it was like in the cab as his truck skidded sideways. The metal must have screamed against the road. The windshield probably cracked and shattered. All I knew was that the cargo doors had swung open. They said chair backs and table tops were flung all over the highway.



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