Oliver's death shook something loose in Red. Just four years before he had been at the wheel of his rig when a young man, driving five members of his family home from work, crossed Route 40 right into the path of his oncoming truck. Though he skid fifty feet in an effort to stop, he was unable to avoid a collision, the force of which obliterated the car, scattering debris and bodies fifty feet along the roadway. The rig continued pushing the remains of the car for 150 feet, smashing through guideposts before coming to a rest in a field, overturned. Red was uninjured, but all of the car's occupants died save for an infant boy, who was miraculously thrown clear from the wreckage.
Red almost certainly did not have time to register much of anything about the scene as he was in it, but as time passed, as endless depositions were given in the court case against his trucking company, he found that he could recall, in vivid detail, all of the elements of the accident: the sound of crushing metal, the burning smell of his brakes, the wild beating of his heart. Sometimes he could even see the terrified eyes of the boy at the wheel just before impact, the last time anyone would see him alive and whole.
It was that image that Red had tried to drink away at night. That and the image of yet another man he had seen crushed by a semi back in 1943 when he was just sixteen years old, riding along in his uncle's rig. He did not share the burden of these memories with anyone or anything but his bottle of vodka, which always dulled the thoughts into a hazy nonexistence.
But there was no drinking away the pain of Oliver's death. It was infused in everything around him--in his wife's vacant indifference to him, in the dread he felt each time he stepped up into his truck cab. With his friend gone, the thought of driving suddenly paralyzed him, and within a year of Oliver's accident, Red had relinquished the wheel and took a job as mechanic with a new freight company. It was a stable job with regular hours. He would be able to see the boys at night, could help see Lil through her grief. He might have believed this change would be enough to see them all through this tragedy.
But now that he was home every night, he and Lillian fought constantly. When she wasn't nagging him about his drinking, she was complaining about his mother or crying about being so far from home. The boys were being infant boys, always crying or squealing or clinging. Whether from joy or from need, they were always squawking. Soon Red found himself drinking not just to block out his memories but to silence all of the noise of this life he had created for himself.
Within a few years, Lillian decided to move home to Baltimore, with or without you, Red, was her ultimatum. He followed, finding work as a gas station attendant, another job that would allow him to be at home with the family. The boys were getting older and still making a commotion, but it was the kind of commotion Red could at least understand, all wrestling and fighting and yelling the perfect insults at the neighbor kids. He found, at times, that he enjoyed their company, enjoyed making them scream with fear and delight as he adopted the various monster roles they assigned him. Whatever troubles he and Lil had, he could set them aside when he was with them.
In 1959 their third son Craig was born, and all the noise of those early days with John and David returned, as did Lillian's listlessness. Red soon realized he couldn't support a wife and three children as a gas station attendant, so he returned to driving, leaving Lillian alone with the boys for long stretches, just as he had in the early years of their marriage. It hadn't worked then, he knew, and he hadn't hoped for it to work this time around; he only knew that he needed that old familiar space, the comforting sound of tires on asphalt, a pleasant white noise that could keep his mind perfectly still.
He set up a separate residence back in Sanford, intending to see Lil and the boys on weekends or while in the area on a trip, but as time wore on, he skipped a weekend visit here or there, finding more comfort alone with his drink. It wasn't long before rumors of other men began to reach him, rumors that sent him raging, whether alone in his apartment or face-to-face with Lil, who denied his accusations but still goaded him on until his anger reached a boiling point and spilled out of his fists. He punched holes in the walls, knocked out the windows.
Some husband and father you are, she might have said, cooly, just to provoke him.
He knew that he could never be a good husband to Lil. She'd never let him. Since her brother's death, she held everyone at an arm's length. He told her as much every time he left, never intending to come back to her. But he kept returning for the boys. He knew he could be a good father, the kind of man his father was, strict but loving. Disciplined. Respected. He also knew he could be none of those things while married to Lil. If he could just get the boys down to North Carolina with him, he might have thought, if they could just have their grandpa. If we could all just have some peace. Things would surely be different. I would surely be different.
Hope like this can drive people to madness. One day, in the grip of this thinking, Red went to his sons' school in tears, explaining to the secretary that there had been a family emergency and he would need to take the boys out early. He then drove them through the night to Sanford, and while his sons slept, Red allowed himself to dream that Lillian would just let them go, that she'd stop threatening him with the courts. He allowed himself, if only for this night, to dream of how different life might be.