there's thunder in the sky now, pt. II / by laurel

I am reminiscing here. That is, if recalling events from less than 24 hours ago could be considered reminiscent. I guess there are three ways it could go down: Memories plucked from obscurity and displayed like shiny museum objects feel saved, like souls floating upward to Memory Heaven. The things we forget, I suppose, go crashing into Memory Hell. But those memories that happened recently, those which have yet to be saved or condemned, eddy in a sort of forever Purgatory. This is one of those moments that I would like to recall when I am old and senile, and my memory has left me for greener pastures.

Al died on Friday, July 21, and the following Friday I was 950 miles from Long Beach and three feet from the ink-blot form of my family's snoozing black lab.

"I put the salad and the cookies and the card in the fridge so you won't forget them. I'm dropping Jamie off, I'll see you at the church..." My Mother's voice faded down the hall and out the front door.

Twenty minutes later, we were rushing out the same door, my Dad dressed like he was going to work; my sister and I dressed like we were going to the mall. The salad, cookies, and card remained untouched in the refrigerator. Blinking in the brightness of the sun, I felt vaguely that all of life seems like a series of assimilating behaviors. For example, in the case of the Olympics, I wonder if I am obligated to care--and which sport do I cheer for, when both luging and speed skating hold the same lack of appeal? In the case of watching the evening news, I weigh the balance of appropriation: do I eat more chips or run screaming for the hills? In the case of a funeral, I turned and asked my sister, "Is it bad that this morning I ate one of the cookies meant for the after-funeral-potluck?"

"No, I took one last night."

"Good, because I actually ate two."

"I did too."

"Okay, it was three."

It was blindingly sunny today, though not hot, even for July. Inside the car felt like being burrowed under a blanket. With the key in the ignition we set ourselves in motion, driving to a funeral, wondering whether anyone would notice--or be bothered--that we weren't wearing black. Creedence Clearwater Revival boomed over the speakers, strong and clear. In perfect pitch and in perfect unison, my dad, sister and I bleated toward the bright altar of the dashboard:

"Ayyyyy wanna know, have you ever seen the rain coming down on a sunny day?"

The sun felt so warm, it seemed impossible to see any rain at all. The neighborhood rolled by on a conveyor belt of sand-colored two-stories. I wondered then if I was allowed to feel deeply contented and painfully, inexcusably, joyfully alive while on my way to a funeral. It didn't matter. We couldn't stop the aliveness from shimmering off the asphalt, from smudging on the windows, from tumbling out of the speakers in 4/4 time.

At the church there was no casket. No gaudy flowers. No oppressive organ or depressing dirges. But there was music playing during the obligatory slideshow. And for the second time that day, Creedence Clearwater Revival pleaded, this time with Al's nearest and dearest, "Have you ever seen the rain coming down on a sunny day?"

It was at that moment that I stopped asking myself if it was okay to feel a certain way.

After the funeral, my sister and I, alone in the car, chose to take the long way home. I feel that in this case, the Long Way Home deserves capitalization, because the Long Way Home was the difference between a sleepy main drag (punctuated by the bloated growing pains of gentrification) or a wild, untraveled highway through the countryside. When that light turned green, we gunned it through the intersection, choosing the sad, sweet heart of the hay field to lead us home.

The fields were draped like tablecloths over soil and worms and life we couldn't see with our eyes. The crops bore table settings of sprinklers and of irrigation ditches and of orchards. We cut across them like renegades; two-bit criminals on the lam, beat-up bandits stealing sunshine and oxygen and outrunning death with a whooping holler.

We rumbled over train tracks and as the traction of our rubber souls resonated off the asphalt, we were ambushed. Like the crashing crescendo of a fatally magnificent symphony, hundreds of black birds filled the air, unearthed from beneath the crops. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds. It was a black curtain swinging across the staged highway. For a moment all we could see was a flurry of wings and motion, as though someone had pressed fast fwd and couldn't find the play button. Hundreds and hundreds, they rose in unison a full octave and descended back into the baseline, quarter rest.

I saw the shining roundness of my sister's eyes, my own eyelids disappeared into my skull. Looking behind us, there were no birds to be found, and I would be tempted to disbelieve such an occurrence had actually happened. But we turned the car around, ground our tires into the shoulder and stared straight ahead.

Creedence was playing again and Jody jammed her foot into the gas pedal.

"This one's for Al."

And again we punched through the veil of time, where everything was fast forwarded, a flurry of light and shadow and sound. Those birds leapt again in unison, the gentle refrain to a brilliant chorus. We were crossing that Red Sea in search of the Promised Land, and as the mighty wall of feathers lifted gracefully around us, we didn't cast our gaze to heaven, or even the sky. We stared straight down the highway corridor, knowing full well what it meant to be renegades, and as the wave of beaks and wings disintegrated behind us, we said,

"Al, this one's for you."