What I really hate about major disasters, Billy was fond of saying, is how they take away from all the smaller disasters, none of them any less disastrous. He had more or less introduced himself that way to Sarah and the whole small town of Fulton, North Carolina, in the fall of 1974, when he showed up late for football season their senior year. He'd continued through the years to connect with her at odd times with that line. He called on 9/11, in fact, twin towers crumbling again and again on the television, while Sarah waited for the school bus to bring her sons home. Until that day the major disaster that was 9/11 had been the plane crash in 1974 that claimed the lives of his parents and older sister, a domestic flight from Charleston to Chicago. Billy went from being a prep school kid, son of a surgeon, to being the orphaned grandson of an old tobacco farmer in eastern North Carolina. The plane's black box revealed that the crew had been talking and laughing too much--talking about politics and used cars, telling jokes--and as a result the Sterile Cockpit Rule came into being. Billy said the last thing you want to be is part of a lesson about how not to die. Studies from the crash had also proved how much more severe the burns were on those dressed in polyester, prompting his classic line about how his mother wouldn't have been caught dead in polyester. She was in wool gabardine. Halston. The suit she got his dad to buy for her the year before with the promise it would last her a lifetime.
Information about the crash preceded Billy's arrival, but it was clear that he would have had all the attention anyway, one of those boys too handsome and smart for his own good the principal was overheard saying when Billy got sent to the office for refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. The fact that he was an orphan just made everyone want him more. The boys wanted to be him or at least to befriend him, and the girls wanted to be with him, to be the one who could bring some happiness back into his life. For better or worse, Sarah was right in there with the best of them and had remained so through 30-odd years of a friendship that had cycled through puppy love and youthful lust, being a couple and then not, years of anger and then regret, bringing them back around to some claim on that strong affection they knew in the beginning.
THERE'S ALWAYS A MOST popular dead person, he called to say when the Challenger exploded. It really pisses me off too. So unfair. Sarah had been dating the man who was to be her husband for only a few months, and he was there with her, half-dressed and a little impatient that she had stopped to answer the phone. They had already watched the explosion many times over, had already spoken so sadly about Chrism McAuliffe, the ordinary schoolteacher on a mission--the dream of a lifetime. Hey, are you there? This was the first time she had actually heard his voice since their own breakup at the end of the six months they lived together at the beach. The decision to share space came during a long winter day while watching the rescue attempts after the Air Florida Flight 90 that went down in the Potomac. Billy had said he couldn't stop watching, that he kept hoping the guy who passed the rescue line to others so many times would wise up the next time it played and get selfish, choose to save his own neck. He then said he could get used to not being alone and they went on from there.
Four years had passed, days on end when she assumed he would do the right thing and at least call or respond to her angry messages and letters. Instead he had taken off and gone to Alaska for a while. Then he was somewhere way up in the mountains of Tennessee. She had gotten a postcard in the summer of 1985 on the heels of the catastrophic Air India and Air Japan flights. His scrawled note said, Shitty summer for travelers. Thinking of you.
Sarah? He said again, the Challenger blowing up in slow motion on the screen.
Yes. I'm here. Got a husband?
Which? He laughed, and in the background she could hear bottles clanking and music playing. Out her window, the winter trees were as stripped bare as she felt at that moment, their lean rattling limbs more comforting than the arms opening to her from across the room, a finger beckoning her to hang up the phone.
What's it to you? That's what you want to say, isn't it? She could tell he had been drinking. If the boyfriend wasn't right there breathing down your neck, you would say that, too. He laughed again. What's it to you, asshole? I don't know anybody on the Challenger. I don't give a shit about you.
But she knew that he knew better than that.
HE CALLED WHEN 183 people died in a crash in Poland and then 290 more on Iran Air. He called right after the explosion over Lockerbie and asked her to sit quietly with him while they timed what those thrown from the plane at 31,000 feet had lived through. He told her how it was likely during the two-minute fall that passengers, still strapped in their seats, woke while passing through lower altitudes--nightmare to end all nightmares. Afterward the rescue team found one young man they were fairly certain was still alive on impact. There was a mother holding her baby, a couple holding hands. I bet my parents were holding hands when they went down, he said. I bet my dad was saying all the right things. Sarah was holding her infant son at the time, nursing him in her darkened bedroom; she could see the Christmas tree lit and glowing down the hail where her husband was building a fire and wrapping gifts.
HE WAS A VOICE through the wire, a voice in her head, even as she passed through major milestone moments: her second son born, a graduate degree, father dying, new job. There was a progression of houses, moves for more bedrooms and then a bigger yard, better schools and then just because it was something she and her husband might enjoy doing, something new, something different. There were clubs and dinner parties and neighborhood-watch meetings. Books read and vacations taken, anniversaries celebrated with dinner out and the perfect gifts chosen. Still, she often thought of Billy. He was the occasional postcard from exotic places, followed by days spent wondering why then, what was going on in his life that made him stop and think of her then, take the time to write. He had married three times, moved around with different jobs, but he was always successful, and who knew by then if it was the magic orphan card he had learned to play so well or just great survival techniques. The calls from Billy marked her life like little train stations, dim hamlets that she moved toward, sensing they would be there when she least expected, the glow she would look over her shoulder to glimpse for miles and miles in the distance.
THE CALL TO COME tell him goodbye was not a surprise. Sarah had heard a month before that he'd gotten a bad diagnosis, and though they were too young to be dying, barely 50, she seemed to know more and more people heading that way. She might have gotten by with cards and a phone call, the occasional "remember when" letter, had he not called her himself to request her presence at his going-away party. When he finished the well-rehearsed invitation, he added, "Besides, you still have some of my albums you never returned. Isn't that the classic cliche? I say, 'You have my White Album, Pure Prairie League, and the Clapton with "I Shot the Sheriff"' and then you say something...