Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Cars, Trips and Things That Go Bump In The Night~ I

Bill from Gainesville startled me when he said I write about life.

After some thought, I'm afraid he's right... only, I don't write it in a funny way, or catching the sharp edge of it; I don't dwell in the exciting parts, I do not make this a better world...those in the list on the left side do all of those things. I tend to actually make this an "i was here" blog, as much as I'd love to think I don't. Hell, look at the title: Fuck Me Dead~ Life, at least my version of it.

Bad grammar, but, it's the truth.

Today was a tough day, and I am not done with the ramifications of all that occurred. DebB's cool head came through, and she put things into motion that may have changed a life. She will always be in my prayers for that mitzvah.

So, I'm going to treat myself... the following is something that combines subjects I've wandered though this month... cars, trips, fear and my dad. It's in two parts, I apologise for that. I wrote it first as a story about my father to the Oddship... I tweaked it some, and on 2 June, I put it out in public for the first time on what would have been my Dad's 80th birthday. I've tweaked it again.... it's long, I promise that much.

I can also promise it was his favourite story about our family.
I love the book, The Road.

One line that stays with me, is when the father says, "....this was the time by which he measured all other days of his childhood."

I spent the bulk of my summers in Monroe, Louisiana, where my father's family had moved when he was four. My time to measure "...all other days of my childhood" was one evening in one of those summers, during an event plotted by my dad and my uncle.

My father was the eldest of his siblings, followed by his brother, Dominic, who died just before he turned five and my father was seven, the baby of the family was their sister, E, younger than dad by four years. The Summer started with our annual road trip to Monroe, which began the day before Dad's birthday, in order for him to be there with his mother, a wonderful, odd, Sicilian woman who loved him deeply, and who built her life around his well being. I was, as the eldest grandchild, her secondary purpose in life, therefore, dropping me off was a ritual, consisting of an hours long drive ending with an enormous meal that we were expected to consume when we arrived, no matter everyone was dead tired.

These are the rides that gave me such a dislike of cars, such angst even to think of them, that until I could control the steering wheel, I not only grew ill at the idea of road trips, but, of cars in general. I survived them when I held the wheel because I controlled the entire thing; I pointed, drove and was done as quickly as possible. I still hold them as something to do only when pushed, when I have absolutely no other choice.

To me, they were moving steel jail cells that encased my family...dad at the wheel, mother making bologna sandwiches on white bread with that nasty pinkish sandwich spread, chips, warm Barq's, and my mother's Golden Child, who always ignored the magic line down the middle of the back seat and encroached on my space. By the time my youngest brother was around, we had a station wagon, and the entire back area belonged to me and the luggage. Wonderful Samsonite making a barrier around my pillow and books and imagination that allowed me to survive, to ignore what was in front, to drift away.

In case you've not caught on, I was not a social child. In the train of life, I lived in a Private Car.

My side of the backseat contained my books, a pillow, a shared blanket and the Barbie I refused to play with. Since we often travelled to the home of someone who had a daughter, and I would not be allowed to sit and read in some small area, or up in a tree the way I felt I should be once I arrived, I knew I'd have to be 'social' and I knew I'd have to do the Barbie thing. She was put into the car for the trip, complete with her wardrobe in the nice shiny black case with the white 'BARBIE' in script on the front. My Barbie had a black haircut, and her head fell off on a regular basis. Actually, this made it easier to dress her.. I just popped off the head, threw on her clothes and there you are... instant out-of-proportion female body to aspire towards in your near future, including breasts with no nipples. Personally, I loved my Ken and his embossed jockey shorts...no chance of sex education from Mattel! He, too, had body issues...his arm wouldn't stay on, so, eventually, I pinned up the sleeves on one side with little gold pins, and pretended he was a war veteran.

I wasn't good at Barbie.. my imagination didn't go down those lines. My Barbie was content to lie in her box and not talk to the other Barbies. She, too, was a Private Car dweller...she was a thinker, I said. She had little books I'd made her, and they were in her case. Neither Barbie nor I were popular. So, this was on my side of the invisible line...a line as solid as steel to me. On the other side was the GC's tonka trucks, some army guys and a colouring book with colours.

Oh, and it held the Golden Child himself.

My Dad would drive like mad down the two lane highway, both he and my mother smoking like trains, talking over the sound of the wind as it came through the wing windows. Mother's voice an Mississipppi accented flow of sound...Dad's a responding grumble... hashing out the day and week and eventually, their lives together, working themselves up to arguments that would do Edward Albee proud... They really were masters of that biting cruelty. The funny thing is, when she tells it, they were speaking sotto voce, and we didn't hear anything. However, I remember fights, smoke, JuicyFruit gum and Estee Lauder Youth Dew perfume, all crammed into that interior, swirled, smashed, sinking on me... any of those scents still makes me ill, especially when confined to a car.

The trunk of our Chrysler held their overnight bags-small suitcases, they only stayed until the morning after Dad's birthday-my big case for the summer, and the Coleman ice chest....packed with ice to keep the muffulettas from Central Grocery for my MawMa along with the olive salad in a separate container, cannoli from Brocato's on Carrollton, and Creole cream cheese... all her favourites from the city she was born and raised in. Sometimes, we brought boiled crabs or crawfish, if they were available on the way out of town, in shacks along the road on the bayou.

There was no air conditioning in our car. When we complained about the heat, Dad's standard joke was that we had 475 conditioning.. four windows down, doing 75MPH. For as long as the light held, I read, my book pressed close to my nearsighted eyes. Sometimes, I'd watch the fields go by...wondering who worked in them, what they looked like, how their lives went, seeing the shacks in the middle of cotton fields, with lines of clothes stretched out behind them. I'd watch the corn fields go by, loving that the rows between looked like the long legs of someone running as we drove past. Sometimes, Dad and I would sing, stopping only when the GC or Mom joined in... to say they couldn't carry a tune in a bucket is the kindest thing I can say.

That was the only kind of stopping we ever did. Those signs would be there, 'Come see the Beau's Alligator Farm! Biggest 'Gator in Five States!! Only Cruel Parents Wouldn't Stop Here!!' We didn't stop. 'Only 14 miles to the next Stuckey's!' Since we never stopped at one, to this day, I never understood the appeal of Stuckey's. Dad would not be swayed from his schedule. He actually made schedules for our trips, timetables a train conductor would envy. The trip from New Orleans to Boston one June still gives me nightmares... we camped out the entire trip, pulling a trailer. Camped out. For over 3000 miles. That trip alone constitutes it's own story. I don't camp anymore either. "NO RESTROOMS FOR 50 MILES!!" That didn't work, either. The only thing Dad found acceptable to stop for was to refuel. If you didn't have to pee when he stopped at that time, you were out of luck. To this day, the sight of a gas sign makes me have to go to the bathroom. Oh, and we went to every single Civil War site there was. He always stopped for those. Friends had Mickey Mouse tshirts, we wore Stonewall Jackson on ours. They went to Six Flags over Texas. We worshiped at the shrine of Jefferson Davis.

Hours would pass, and the GC would start to complain his stomach hurt. He'd alternate the complaints with kicking the back of Mother's seat. Eventually, her hand would swing over the bench seat, swatting at whomever she could reach. GC stayed curled up, I was leggy and had to stretch my feet to rest on the back of the front seat, so, I took the swats. I'd have to pinch him in retaliation. It seemed fair to me. He'd scream as if, well, soundly pinched. This would be the point where Dad would yell at Mother to deal with the situation, he was trying to drive, goddamnit, and she would yell back.. then, she'd turn around and bend over the seats, swinging away.

I've always said the behaviour of children in cars has decreased with the removal of the bench seat. No longer do you see cars hurtling down the highway with some mother's bottom framed in the windshield as she dealt with the recalcitrant children in the back seat of the family sedan...add to this is the knowledge that there was a good chance she wore a girdle and stockings, balanced a lit cigarette, kept her high heels from puncturing any of the upholstery and never smeared her lipstick proved her dexterity in this job. Truly, this is a lost art form.

We followed Louisiana Highway 61 (thank you, Bob Dylan) up through LaPlace, Baton Rouge, St. Francisville, Sarpy, connecting to another two lane highway, all of them dark, cutting through the small towns, we could smell magnolias and poverty when we stopped those few times, the milky beauty of one unable to override the weight of the other. Running to the bathroom, our feet would crunch on the crushed shells that make up so many walk ways in the lower portion of the state. We'd breath in the heavier bayou air, fearful of the shadows formed by the single yellow lightbulb, the moths that caught in my hair, the men who leaned against the RC cooler and spoke in some patois we didn't know, and of what we swore were alligator eyes staring out from the slime covered water.

Back in the car, and depending on the length of the trip and how bored he was, GC continued to work on his real or feigned carsickness with the deft touch of a master.

"Ohhh, my head. Let me put my head in your lap, Sis."


I knew what would happen. I'd have to keep the window to a crack, and not move. Since it was too dark to read, I dreamed, and wanted to be left alone.


The front lines of war started again...usually, they had both left directly from work to start to the trip, and were tired from the get-go. If we'd picked up seafood, it was starting to waft into the interior of the car, and there were always mosquitoes buzzing about, since Mother wouldn't allow the front windows to go all the way down. Dad would tell her to do something, anything to shut up that highly pitched sound. Mother and I would have the "why do I have to let him by me because I said so but why he will throw up on me no he won't yes he will do it or I'll beat you" discussion. That ended it, and I had to allow him to cross that line, and put his head in my lap, and proceed to complain every time I breathed.

That wasn't the main strategy, though. Oh, no...that was just the tease to the Big Show. He'd wait until he was really starting to feel ill... when he could time the amount of smoke in the car, that the two combatants in the front seat were at a breaking point, the fact I could no longer read.. and we were between two rest stops, neither within easy driving distance. He'd sit up, and scoot back, huddling on his side.. gagging. I knew it was coming. I'd curl into my corner, as tight as I could get.

"Momma.. he's going to throw uphe'sgonnathrowuphe'sgonnathrowup." My refrain didn't halt, as he inched his way back over, holding my eyes... working it.. working it.. and when he got right on me... up it came. On me. On Barbie's case....well, granted, that was no loss. On my books. On my side of the magic line. Mission accomplished, he'd burst into tears and move back over to his pristine seat, looking wan and pathetic.

He was a master.

Dad would curse and yell, Mother would shout back he should have stopped at the last rest stop... the car careened over and slammed onto the kudzu covered shoulder while I sat still, arms extended from my body, in the remains of sandwiches, chips and Barq's. Doors were opened, he was pulled out, cleaned up and comforted..then I was changed, the whole time, the fight continued, low, sharp, edged with smoke and Wrigleys.

When done, the car aired, clothes changed, the stench lingered. All windows were down now, in spite of Mother complaining about her hair. The ice chest was moved inside, to his wheel well space, pillows put there, a little bed made, the blanket over him. At least I knew the line was solid now. We both started to drift off, the front seat voices truly lowered, the words marinated in distain, showing us how not to be married. Their tone was rhythmic, and we'd fall asleep to the lullabye of the arguments we knew by heart.

As his eyes slowly closed, CG looked over and smiled. Even now, I have to hand it to him.. he was good.

We slept on, by 1 A.M., the car would slow, bump over the curb, the porch light would be on... she'd come out....running to Dad, throwing her arms around him, kiss his face, her arms pulling us out of the back seat. Holding us, one arm on each, a tight nod to my mother who was of Irish descent, and not good enough. It didn't matter my PawPa had been Irish...he was dead, and therefore now sainted.

We ate, sitting beside her, falling asleep on the table. I was carried to 'my' room, everyone else shared the big spare. This was my room, always. It was ready, my little fan already going, the cotton sheets crisp and white and ironed. The books were lined up, the dresser drawers empty and sprinkled with lavender. My PawPa's photo was on my nightstand, the one with me sitting on his lap...

My summer was there, to start in 36 hours, when they left.

I could wait... my freedom started then.


Bill From Gainesville said...

The way you write your mother, she totally comes alive in my brain, I can see her leaning back swatting at GC and hitting you on accident, all while she smokes her cigarettes bitching at your dad, him bitching back while the windows are rolled down and a headless barbie lays on the FLoor. I feel like I am in that car...

Harriet V said...

You make me so thankful for my parents! My siblings may have been difficult, but my parents were really good.

golfwidow said...

What Harriet V said.

Quin Browne said...

bill~he'd have thrown up on you, too

sortamom~i learned how to raise kids right.

gw~i know, i've met one of them. she rocks.

Peter Varvel said...

You've mentioned how you've blocked out years' worth of your childhood, but your memory and attention to the details from this portion of your life are truly amazing!
Let's repeat: you have a gift to serve (and lot of cathartic and therapeutic--hopefully--writing to do).

Bud said...

My God, that was brilliant writing! I once attempted a piece like this. You told your story so beautifully that there's truly no need for me to ever return to mine and try to rescue it. Thought the details of your trip were different, you captured so many feelings that most of us share about those "adventures."

Quin Browne said...

it's true about mother's butts in the front windows, isn't it, bud?

thanks again...all of you. brilliant?

not my best, not my worst as a friend would say.

i'm simply glad y'all liked it.

Writeprocrastinator said...

Man, a brother that spews on cue and Pavlov's bathroom. That's a road trip.

Solomon said...

Wow. You remind me so much of me. That invisible line was always a major feature of my childhood. I never had kids round. I always went out to play, because I needed my space.

Your road trip sounds like absolute hell.