My friend Mike calls his household mini-van "The Fambulance." The day after Christmas ours is loaded with four-fifths of the Moore clan knifing through a snowstorm at 45 miles per hour. It feels like 80. At this pace it'll be another hour to the family gathering in North Chicago.
Peggy plays it safe. She plants 50 yards between us and the car ahead. More distance than that and those taillights vanish into the blowing snow.
Holiday migrations are in full flight. Before we left town, Willy Street was bumper-to-bumper both directions from Baldwin all the way to Machinery Row. Never seen that before. Out here on the Interstate, cars crank forward like links on a chain.
The words "go out only if you have to" are open to interpretation in the Midwest. Around here, invincibility in the face of murderous weather is as foolish as it is commonplace. So even though visibility sucks and temps spike further and further down, with the exception of that Mississippi plate we passed, I bet there isn't a car within 10 miles of us with people on board who are freaked out. Awake? You bet.
So we glide along, safe and snug. Daughter Maggie created a mix CD just before we left Madison. Edith Piaf turns the Fambulance into a booth at the bistro. Maggie and her brother fall in and out of sleep; a tangle of arms and legs sprawl across the van's back bench. I latch the shotgun seat into full recline. Like an Apollo astronaut.
Peggy jerks, stomps the brake hard. I pop up to see. A silver sedan circles counterclockwise in front of us. It's moving forward and spinning at the same time at about 40 mph. Amazingly - and so far - it stays in its own lane. We're getting closer.
Peggy pumps the brakes again, then again. Our speed is cut in half. But more than anything we want to stop. We roll closer to the spinning car, close enough to see the head and face of the man driving it. He's alone. This is revealed from all angles during the car's spin-around in the same way a stage magician will show you the emptiness of a box on rollers. We're now 20 feet from the car. It looks like we'll be able to ease past him. Then the unhinged carnival ride spirals into our lane.
"We're going to be all right" are the only words I remember hearing. Peggy says this. I look. Her face is full of fight, and I believe her. But when I look back to the problem I feel less sure. We're going to hit him, and who knows what's going on behind us?
Another pump of the brakes. Peggy wheels us from the center lane over to the far right. The spinning car disappears to our left. We've missed him head-on, but we're too close to avoid contact in the middle or in the tail end of our van. Over the next seconds, as we straighten out, nothing. Still nothing. It's over.
"Oh my God!" says Maggie. "Did that just happen?" We turn around to see where the guy went. The answer is concealed by the curtains of swirling snow.
Ten of Peggy's mom's 16 grandchildren have made the trip. All six of Peggy's siblings are there, the first time that's been pulled off in several years. The kids exchange gifts. A young sports-fan cousin unwraps a framed portrait of a pro baseball player. Another, a picture of a pro footballer. Our 16-year-old Riley looks at me with a smile and says, "I'm going to be crushed if I don't get a portrait of the 2009 Caber Toss Champion." Riley, of course, has no interest in the venerable Scottish tree-trunk-pitching event.
We laugh and sing and eat, then eat some more. The snow continues to fall, and Peggy takes a group of kids out to the yard for a snowball fight. Then cookies and more music. Soon pieces of families, including my own, disappear up steps and down into the basement rooms to go to sleep for the night. I stay up late playing guitar with two of Peggy's brothers.
I undress in the dark. It's quiet. Only the sounds of Peggy, Maggie and Riley breathing. A Dylan lyric none of us could remember pops into my head, and I almost return downstairs to share it. Instead, I lie on the mattress made up for me on the floor.
I close my eyes. The silver car spins from out of the dark into view. I had nearly forgotten. Who is the man in it? Is he okay? Where was he going?
New questions line up, one behind the other and call out in turn, a confused chorus. How did we miss him? What if there was a car in the lane when we swerved? How is it that we're safe tonight when we came so close? Why were we so fortunate?
I open my eyes. The car is gone. The dark room offers no answers. I turn on my side and stare at my sleeping son for a long while, until my eyes can no longer stay open.