Trauma hijacked my life in the little house on Oak Ridge Road. It wasn’t my first trauma and would not be my last, but we all became closer that day because of it. My mom, my brother Jason, dad’s assistant Beth, and others who worked at the swimming pool store had been suffering from the news for a little bit longer as they’d learned about daddy’s death a bit earlier. It was Heath, my dad’s mechanic, who drove my mother and brother home in mom’s car, while Beth followed them in her car. They sat through stunned silence and tears on the short drive to Oak Ridge.
It had been two days since anyone had talked to my dad, and the dozen roses I held on my lap as my boyfriend Tim drove me to Oak Ridge were forgotten. I had no idea that car ride, feeling longer than any other I’d ever made, would be the last time I’d have the opportunity to embrace the life as I knew it. The life with two living parents. The life where I felt secure.
Later, when someone told me he had been shot, I didn’t think about where. Nothing made sense. My brain could not compute.
I had to get out, leave the house. That first night, I couldn’t stand to be around all the people, and I couldn’t bear seeing my mother cry. It was too depressing. Friends and neighbors poured in, including my best friend Natalie who helped me change out of my constricting work clothes and into something more casual because I didn’t know what to do next. When I saw mom and Jason being nurtured by our quickly organized support system, Natalie, Tim and I left with my mom’s blessing. She understood I needed my friends, too.
When you’re here, you’re family
Of all the places, we chose the Olive Garden. Not for the endless soup, salad and breadsticks, but for the peace, quiet, and anonymity of a booth at a chain restaurant on a Tuesday night. I thought I was hungry, but I couldn’t eat. I just sat there, thinking I should be at home and not out to eat. My memory of the events from the last few days rolled around in my head. No one knew anything, and it hadn’t been on the 10 o’ clock news yet.
It was Tuesday, July 21, and daddy had been missing since Monday. I thought of how I worked on Monday and looked for him, thinking nothing was wrong. Natalie and I strolled through McCain Mall on Monday night, and it sickened me to think of how the whole time we were flipping through racks of CDs, daddy’s dead body lay frozen in time in his second-floor bedroom just miles away. His AC unit cranked away, cycling on and off for the last 48 hours, preserving him laying in bed. We had no idea. It’s weird to think back and remember those moments laughing with my best friend since seventh grade and not even know he was dead all that time.
“Y’all gonna need anything else tonight?” the server asked as she made her round back to our booth.
“I think we’ll just take the check,” Natalie said. She looked at me with her perfectly almond-shaped blue-green eyes, rubbing my shoulder, as if to say silently, “Are you ok? Do you need anything?” But my face told her and everyone I didn’t want to be here anymore.
“Honey, I don’t know what’s happened, but I hope you feel better soon,” the server said, trying to sympathize or put a smile on my face.
“If you want to know what happened, you should watch the news tonight,” I said, pushing the words out through my breath.
“Oh?” the server said, amused to finally hear my voice. But another look at me told her it wasn’t a funny fluff story the Channel 4 news team would be covering that night.
I gripped Tim’s hand tighter. I don’t remember what I ordered at the Olive Garden. Did I order anything? I wanted to get out of there but not go home. I wanted this to just not happen at all. I wanted to wake up from what I thought was a nightmare. I should be in mourning, not ordering chicken fettucine alfredo (daddy’s favorite meal, but he forbade me from eating anything white except fish). Or should I eat all the fettuccine in wild abandon because now daddy could never again berate about my weight?
The server returned with our check and an entire six-inch chocolate layer cake with white icing.
“I know this probably won’t help make things better, but I hope it does,” the server said as she set the boxed cake on our table. “This is on me.”
I spent that first night at Tim’s house in the guest room. I don’t know when my mind ever met sleep as I felt physically sick and full of anxiety. When I closed my eyes, the fear of having a gruesome nightmare popped those eyelids right back open.
At one point, I walked downstairs to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator to look at the cake. Someone had cut out a slice already, so I found a fork and dove in, right there in the refrigerator with the door wide open. From my cake-eating squat vantage point, I saw the wall phone where mom told Tim to drive me home without the radio. How was this unraveling so fast, so bizarre? Am I in a dream right now, I wondered as I filled my mouth with chocolate cake and icing.
Get that sonofabitch
In the morning, my mother called and talked to my friend’s mom, who gave us an update about daddy. I needed to get back to our house on Oak Ridge and fall in line with the other grieving mourners. As I drove home, I stopped at daddy’s office to see what was going on. No one was prepared to see his daughter there, but I really wasn’t ready to face the chaos at my house yet. As I pulled into the parking lot, I saw my grandfather, Sonny Burnett, getting out of his own Cadillac sedan. He and his wife, Marilou (Nannie), barely slept the night before and then woke early to make the drive from Tulsa.
“We’re going to get that sonofabitch,” Papaw said as he closed the car door.
I ran in for a hug with my Papaw. My grandfather was hot. I mean, he was about to lose it. I’m sure he knew something was not right about this situation and his aim was to get any person who did his son harm. Papaw, Nannie and I immediately began to share our thoughts and opinions as we made our way to the front doors of the showroom, the place where I’d last laid my eyes on Johnny Burnett.
In the office, everyone wore black, and it was quiet. That place has a certain smell – pool chemicals scent the humidity floating around each bubbling hot tub on display. If someone led me blindfolded through the door, I would know where I was. I broke into tears when I smelled the showroom because I knew where I was. The pool store was like home, and it will always be Johnny Burnett Pools and Spas to me. In the cement next to the first warehouse he built on the property, you can still read “Heather and Jason, 1985.” Every part of that office represented a part of daddy. He built his success from the beginning, and we were going to find out who took it all away.