It was mid-July, 1977, and we were cruising down I-40 in a ‘69 Ford LTD on our way from North Carolina to the Grand Canyon. My father did not believe in listening to music while driving. He wore a light blue cap that said “Olin” in darker blue on the front and he stared straight ahead, his eyes focused on the road. My mother angled toward him, one foot tucked underneath the other thigh. She filed her fingernails while she chattered.
“Sixty-two cents for gas…Oh, my goodness—look at those Crepe Myrtles! Aren’t they beautiful?...I’m feeling warm. Are y’all feeling warm? I wonder what the temperature outside is. I bet it is 95. Do you think so?”
Every now and then, my father offered a one line response, but mostly he nodded and muttered. My brother and I rode in silence, our mother’s voice a melodious backdrop to the drone of the highway falling beneath us. I was ten years old and my brother was fourteen. We wore short shorts, tube socks, and had matching winged hair. I had outgrown the sticker books that had entertained me all the way to Myrtle Beach and back when I was little, so I had brought along a stack of Nancy Drew mysteries and seven of my favorite stuffed animals—a collection of various sized dogs. The largest was roughly the size of a hearty butternut squash. The smallest more closely resembled a red new potato.
Snuggles was the mother of the group. She was white with pink ears and large brown eyes. The father, Hershey, had long, floppy ears and was the color of my mother’s chocolate sheet cake. And then there were the little ones: two whose names are forever obscured by childhood and my favorite, Brownie, a miniature version of Hershey. This was pre-Furbies, pre-Beanie Babies. I had never seen these dogs advertised on TV. None of them did anything, nor could you collect them and keep them in a curio cabinet for a few years before selling them and buying a new car or second home. And so my love for them was pure and untainted by commercialism or the promise of investment.
By the time we hit Knoxville, my brother and I were already bored. My dogs had undergone several family crises, which I had expertly guided them through, and I was halfway through The Mystery at The Ski Jump. My brother had completed all the word games in three Reader’s Digests.
“I’m bored,” I told my mother.
“See if you can find the alphabet on the road signs,” she said. “Look. There’s an a over there on that A&W sign.”
Twenty miles later, I was still searching for a c, and my brother had found the entire alphabet. I gave up. I arranged my dogs in birth order on the vinyl line between the seats, then stared out at the billboards floating past to a kid in jeans and a blazer thumbing by the highway and at the prison crew stopped for lunch. And then, just as we crossed the Tennessee-Arkansas state line, I got a cramp in my left calf. I reached out my leg long to stretch it and accidentally knocked my brother’s leg. In return, he edged the bony part of his knee into that soft spot just beside my kneecap and pushed with such force that I screamed, “Stop!” at a frequency which only dogs should have been able to hear, but which our father did, in fact, hear.
"Do you want me to pull over?” he said, breaking eye contact with the road just long enough to glare at us over the seat. “Huh?” he said. “Do you?”
A smirk began deep in my brother’s throat, a distant hum growling, which spread to one side of his mouth, at which point my dad caught it in the rearview.
“What did you say?” my dad said. “What?”
Don’t say it, I thought. Do. Not. Say. It.
“Go ahead,” my brother said, his jaw twitching, his dark eyes meeting my father’s in the mirror.
For a moment, there was only the sound of the highway rippling. Then my mother trilled, “Oh, my goodness! Look out the window, everyone! Look at that groundhog! And is that a hawk over there? I think it is! Look, everyone—a hawk!”
My mother was petite with full, black hair and deep brown skin, which belied the Cherokee ancestry our family did not discuss. She had a breathless way of talking, her voice high and fluttery like a bird’s, and she tackled every silence as if it were an emptiness she could fill. When she didn’t know what to say, she made up words.
“Woozle!” she would say if she were cold or shocked. “Woozle be doozle be!”
Around the house, my mother wore shorts and went barefoot. She smelled like Jergen’s hand lotion and she had lovely, flawless skin, except for one varicose vein in the shape of an oval on her right thigh. When I was little, I would clutch her knees and trace the outline of that mark with my fingers. The only times my mother ever dressed up were for church or bridge club. For these occasions, she dabbed Jovan musk on her wrists and neck and she wore high heels, brightly patterned floor length skirts, and bright red lipstick. Men thought she was beautiful, but she never seemed to notice, and I think she was as surprised as I was when men commented on her appearance.
“Your mom sure is gorgeous,” one of my friends' fathers would say.
And I would look at her again—her high cheekbones, pitch black eyes, slender shoulders, and delicate waist—and I would try to see her as a child can never really see her mother, as a man might see her.
Now, my mother’s strained voice set off all sorts of alarms in my head. I was an anxious kid, prone to all sorts of compulsions. The year before, in fourth grade, I had had a cough that lasted roughly six months. Our family doctor had sent me to a pulmonologist, who told me to try sipping water whenever I felt the urge to cough. Every day, I carried a bottle of water to school and alternately sipped and hacked throughout the day. Back then, carrying a water bottle to school was unheard of—right up there with experiential learning and ADD—and my teachers treated me as if I could spontaneously combust at any moment.This disease was more mysterious than others they knew about, like diabetes, and potentially more dangerous since it involved the lungs.
I didn’t even have to participate in P.E. No more getting hit in the face with a dodge ball or running laps around the school. No more sit-ups or flexed arm hang. Perfect. That spring, I saw two or three more specialists before one of them finally decided my cough was psychosomatic, a theory my brother had been embracing all along.
“I told you she was faking!” he told my mother. “I told you! What an idiot.”
My mother explained to him that psychosomatic did not exactly mean faking, but he was undeterred in his quest to harass me back into mental health, a plan which, in all likelihood, is the reason I am not still coughing today. Over the next few months, my hacking cough diminished into a loud sputter, then a periodic throat clearing, until finally vanishing completely.
In the car that day, I knew this contest of wills between my brother and father could escalate. If this went any further, we would find ourselves pulled over on the shoulder, my father ordering my brother from the car. However, we managed to cross half of Arkansas without actually pulling over, and somewhere near Little Rock, we exited I-40 and found a motel for the night. The next day, we were on the road again, headed to Oklahoma City. Oklahoma was immensely, incredibly flat, not South Carolina flat, which was really more wavy, but flat like I had never seen.
“It’s really flat here,” I announced.
“Mmm hmmm,” my mother said.
“Do they have tornadoes here?” I asked.
“Only every now and then,” my mother said. “And then people have plenty of warning and they go to their basements where they’re very, very safe.”
Dark clouds were forming in the distance. I opened my book again and tried to read some more, but I read the same page over and over. I looked back outside.
“It looks like it’s about to storm,” I said.
“No,” my mother said. “I see a blue spot over there. Look.”
She pointed to the only opening in the sky that was now purplish-black. My brother looked up from his Reader’s Digest.
“You’re so stupid,” he said.
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