When I was eleven years old, my older sister ran a red light without even slowing. It must have been the end of the school year—she was looking through her yearbook while driving. Her junior prom dress was in the trunk. The car she hit sat yards from us afterward—the force of the crash must have shoved the two vehicles apart, like a chaperone to a couple of horny teens. My other older sister, a year younger than the first, was strapped into the passenger seat. When they looked back at me my nose was bleeding; I wouldn’t have known if they hadn’t told me. That’s how numb it was, how broken. The other driver was a much older man, angry and discombobulated and unrelenting in his angry discombobulation. When the police arrived, my sister and I walked to the grocery store across the street to find a pay phone and wash my face. I was so afraid of driving afterward that I wouldn’t get my license until more than a decade later, at 23 years old. My sister took driving classes and was back on the road within the year.
On June 14, 1961, Patsy Cline is thrown through the windshield of her brother Sam’s car when another driver pulls out right in front of them to try and pass from the adjoining lane. The head-on collision gives Patsy a broken wrist, a dislocated hip, and cracked bones and lacerations on her face. She is 28 years old; her first major crossover hit, “I Fall to Pieces,” is only just beginning to make the rounds on stations across the country. Her friend Dottie West rushes there as soon as she gets word, sits picking glass from Patsy’s hair at the scene of the accident. Days later Dottie will call Patsy in the hospital so she can hear “Pieces,” through the phone line, for the first time on the radio. Back on the night of the accident, first responders fly to Patsy’s side on arrival but she insists they tend to the other car’s occupants first. She watches the other driver die there, on the road that night, despite their best efforts. The six-year-old boy they drive to the hospital will later that night succumb to his injuries as well.
The effect on Patsy is eternal and unavoidable. She tells Dottie, about the other driver, “It was like maybe I watched her die for a reason.” She questions what God could want from her out of this. There is a scar now the width of her pinky finger running across the length of her brow and up into her scalp, beneath her hair. For the rest of her life, she wears headbands tightly across her forehead to keep the headaches to a minimum; she kneels in the bathroom and rests her face against the cool bathroom tile when this doesn’t work. She lives with blackouts and layers of concealer. She only lives another 21 months.
On August 30, 1991, Dottie West’s Chrysler New Yorker sputters out in front of the Belle Mead theater in downtown Nashville. Kenny Rogers had given her the car just the year before, as she’d been working through the repossession of her home and most other worldly possessions in an effort to pay two and a half million in back taxes. Now it’s dead and she’s late for a gig at the Opry. Before long, her 80-year-old neighbor George spots her on the side of the road and offers to take her the rest of the way. She’s late for the Opry. She’s trying her damndest to make things right again, tonight and in her life. She is 58 years old and they still want her at the Opry. She tells George to book it.
It isn’t until his Plymouth Reliant takes the Opryland exit ramp going 30 over the posted speed limit and Dottie is suddenly airborne that everything comes into perspective. It’s a split second that feels exactly like a split second and at the same time lasts for years. She and George hit the underpass head-on. When the sirens arrive, she remembers Patsy—has spent it seems her whole life remembering Patsy—and tells the EMTs that she feels fine, that they should tend to George first. And it’s true: she does feel fine. A little sore, but adrenalized. She can walk, though she doesn’t. She can talk and think clearly. The problems, it will turn out only later that night, are everything they can’t see. A ruptured spleen, a liver torn practically to shreds, internal bleeding like a softly blooming flower. She is dead four and a half days later, her family at her side. George lives another six years and change.
The only time I’ve ever ridden in a cop car was after a car crash. Maybe seven years old, reading a Far Side compendium in the back seat of the family minivan, my head leaning forward until it rested against the driver’s seat. The goose egg on the crown of my skull afterward probably concussive, though untested. The other driver had been a teenage girl who’d driven straight through a red light. She was nearly inconsolable, but physically unharmed. My father comforted her in the middle of the stopped intersection, thinking I have to assume of his own daughters, not yet old enough to drive, but getting there. The van was so wrecked the police drove my big family home in a two-cruiser caravan. My brother tried to spit out the window at a stop sign; the glass was so clean he didn’t realize it was rolled up. The officer behind the wheel laughed as my brother turned red and used his sleeve to wipe up the mess.
A month and a half after Patsy Cline is pried from the dashboard of her brother’s crumpled sedan, she asks her manager to book her. I don’t care where, she says. Somewhere close by. Who’s got an opening? Her set from that night at the Cimarron Ballroom in Tulsa won’t be released for another 36 years, after someone finds the tapes in a box in their attic. The tapes only exist because the house recorded the sound check—the show we get isn’t even the actual show. Patsy is on crutches; her scars have barely healed. And she sounds fucking amazing. Her voice is the enemy of death. She seems to be pushing herself to every limit of volume and power and melody. She is spitting in the grim reaper’s face and wiping her mouth with the scythe.
Between songs, she also jokes with the crowd about the crash. “I’m kinda outta wind,” she says. “This is the first time I’ve worked since I got outta the hospital.” And when the audience laughs: “What are you laughing about? You wasn’t there.” It’s good to hear her chuckle to herself. “Oh me,” she says. “I tell you, them women drivers are rough on us good folks.”
Later, after “Lovesick Blues”—an explosive take that turns the standard into a declaration, a flag stuck into the middle of Satan’s ass—she says, “The boss just give me an order,” and even though the house manager tells her, faint on the recording, “A request, not an order,” she proves to the world just how Patsy she’ll always be: “My, my. Well, I’ll tell you one thing: honey chile, you boss me anytime you want.” The audience hollers. She leads the Cimarron Boys into “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” doing everything she can to hold on to it all. Tonight she is not fragile. Tonight she is breaking hearts just grinning. Tonight she’s in the driver’s seat.