I’m riding in the back seat of the navy blue Buick with cream colored seats that Mother demanded Daddy buy otherwise she was not now, nor never, asking Grandpa for another distribution from the trust. She likes to run her red-nailed fingers over the creamy leather like she’s petting an animal. She smiles at Daddy. He’s gives her a wink. They have a music of intention between them that mostly makes me happy but lonely, kind of like watching a good baseball game from the other side of a chain-link fence. That’s what sitting in the back seat does.
This is a good day between them. I see Daddy move his arm towards her leg. She smiles back and says, “youcrazybumbutdon’tIlove you.” Just about then, Daddy points to the glove box, and Mother looks over her shoulder at me, and whispers back to him, “Not while she’s with us, Carl.” I can hear, I want to tell her. I can hear you over the wind that is blowing through the car. I can hear you over heaven and nature, over engine and road, over God and man-made things. Daddy looks in the rear-view mirror at me, “You can keep a secret, can’t you, Bug?” I nod and nod and nod until it matches the rhythm of the telephone poles swishing by. I sing “a mighty forest is our Gaaawwwd.”
“Fortress, Maisy-May, not forest.” She laughs. I sing “forest” louder.
My legs are chubby and sticking out and can’t bend over the end of the seat. It is the most familiar long ride us family takes. The crumbs of my peanut butter and jelly sandwich mostly catch in the cellophane bag, but when they don’t, I brush the mess quickly to the floorboards and look to see if my mother will notice. I look at the back of her head. She’s taken her hat off from church and the dark brown pin curls are spinning like live bees as Daddy drives a little too fast with the windows down through the hot breathy wind. His raven-haired beauty, Daddy calls her, when they dance together in front of the TV and smooch and make me go to bed early. He keeps looking at her in quick sidelong glances, and she fake-tries to keep her hair away from her eyes and lipstick, but those bees keep flying around her like a passion cloud. She laughs with her head back and her white throat showing.
This is a good day between them. I wad up my sandwich bag and push it down between the seats and try to imagine a day when we won’t own the Buick. The sandwich bags won’t be found until the car is sold and the new owner buys the car and takes out the seats for a thorough clean that Mother complains Daddy never does. I wonder if the new owner will call Mother and ask about what might be a hundred sandwich bags by then.
“Who put those there?” the new owner will demand, who I imagine is a Brylcreem-slicked character, with a Dick Tracy jaw that divides his face in half. My mother won’t be scared of him, no. She’ll be mad at me. She can be like the queen in Snow White when she is angry, all shoulders back and fingers jabbing, demanding her due. But that’s a long time from now, and by then I will be at college and when I am at college, I don’t believe she can do anything. It will be up to the principal of the college and he won’t care but a little. My Daddy says time heals all wounds and going to college is certainly plenty of time to heal about all the wounds she says I inflict – her figure from being pregnant with me, her nails getting thinner, and taking a piece of Daddy’s love away from her. I imagine how I will say on the phone “well, I can’t imagine why you even sold the navy blue Buick after all that fuss you made with Daddy.” I will speak in an English accent when I’m older.
I stick my hand out and wave it like an airplane, resisting the wind and feeling it between my fingers.
“Careful, you,” Mother says, “that’s how that little girl in Memphis lost two fingers. Didn’t see the sign post so close to the road.”
Memphis is in Egypt according to my Sunday School teacher so that has nothing to do with me. I pull my hand in and think of what else to look at besides all their giggling and Mother’s crazy hair and the telephone poles whishing along the flatline of the road.
This Sunday – as usual – we are going to Grandpa’s and Grandma’s house right after church. We will have roast beef and white potatoes and butter on bread and string beans, all laid out in their own white porcelain dishes, clean and tidy as a row of hospital beds. Sometime after the bread and butter but before dessert, Mother and Daddy will go for an errand and Grandma will tell me not to bother about what they’re doing and stop asking questions and read on the porch with her because it’s the Sabbath. She thinks I don’t hear her say to Grandpa that Liza should have never married him. She thinks I can’t hear her sigh when they pull out the drive. She doesn’t want me to know about the flask they pull from the glove box.
I’ll tell you how I know about the flask. One time Daddy got cigarettes at the Texaco, and was leaning on the counter taking a long time talking to the check-out lady, shining his teeth and rolling his cigarette behind his ear. I opened the glove box to see what the big deal was. I took the flask out, unscrewed the top and took a sip. Whatever had been in there was real spoiled and it tasted like death. A few minutes later my stomach felt hot and my head foggy. I didn’t know whether that was a good feeling or not. Mother always says a little of something is better than a whole lot of nothing when she takes sip. That must have been a little something of something.
We get to their farm. We eat Sunday supper at Grandmother’s heirloom walnut table in front of the big picture window. I can see the pasture way out where they keep the milk cows. I can see the stand of trees where the beehives have been put in hurried piles in the tall grass. They remind me of the peeling-paint Negro shacks at Uncle’s, dark inside as the people who sleep there. I know a creek that in the winter you can walk on, and peer through its icy top and see the eyeballs of little fish waiting hungrily for the spring thaw. “It’s okay, little fish” as I tell them how many more days the Farmer’s Almanac says til thaw. Fish sticks, I call them. Frozen in time until life is breathed into them.
At Sunday dinner, Roger, my grandparents dog, has wedged his hindquarters under my chair and I run my barefootedness on his silky coat and he moans a little and Grandpa looks around for the sound and then winks at me. I wink back at him but with two eyes because one is hard. He eyes were probably dark blue like mine when he was little, but they are bleached out like a summer towel. He is old but not too old to milk all the cows himself, and drive the Harvester, and pull back the blackberries from the shed, and all the chores the boy next door says he’ll do for Grandpa if Grandpa ever offers to pay him.
“No, son, this little one’s going be old enough to help me by the time I’m too old to do it, and she’ll do it for free if I give her rides on the tractor, won’t you Squirt?”
His flat, dry hand tosses my hair in a tornado of affection. I don’t know so much about the free part, but I play along because that boy is crazy trying to get money out of my granddad, or so Daddy says.
Then the moment comes when Grandpa wants to walk Daddy out to the back pastures, and show him the changes that he will inherit, and look at the new John Deere. But Daddy says “there is plenty of time for all that, Henry” and nudges Mother to towards their errand. At the mention of errands, Grandmother says “No buying on Sabbath,” and Mother rolls her eyes. Grandmother says, “I know what kind of errands you two go on. “Godhavemercy.” Mother moves to kiss her on the cheek but it’s one of those air kisses that never reaches its target.
I want to go on this non-buying errand they go on but you can only ask a thousand times before you don’t ask again. I rub Roger, whose full name is Roger That, which I don’t know why, and I ask “please can I take my plate to the kitchen and see the creek.” Grandmother says, “Yes and put your bones in Roger’s dish.” Roger slowly rises off his hind legs and pulls from his front legs and raises his back and then appears to be in a position to go forward, and off we go.
In a few moments we watch the navy blue Buick raise a tail of gravely dust down the long drive and prepare to turn onto the main highway. Roger That and I bet left or right and Roger wins. I could climb through the fence but I like to go over it. Roger slithers under the split rails now that he’s older. I see the one mean cow I don’t like. She blows wads of snot out of her nose when I get too close. Why can’t some things let you get close without getting all snotty? “Bad cow” I call after her then run like heck.
I tell Roger about last Thursday, and how Caroline and Toni and Charl and I carefully chalked out the foursquare boxes. But when Charl’s ball hit the line, she claimed her square was smaller than everyone’s so not out! The veins stuck out from her neck. I said a square’s a square and you’re a liar. Charl got her nose all up in mine like that cow I hate. I don’t exactly remember punching her but Caroline said it was a good thing because I needed self-defense but it wasn’t seen that way by the principal. The principal of the college will not mind me punching for self-defense but this one at our elementary school does.
When he asked me to explain myself I could only think of a quote my Mother says to Daddy when he gets all red in the face and knocks the beer bottles over on his way in from the garbage. It must be a powerful quote so I tell him “Ignorance breeds Ignorance,” which seems like it could only be exactly true. “You calling me Ignorant, Maisy?” he says suddenly, and then I’m not so sure about the quote but I decide I’d better stick to it cuz I got no idea where else to go. I stare at my shoelaces that I am kicking up. I know from Sunday School we don’t believe things can beget what they are not, like those evolutionists that started the cold war and that our teachers tell us are “destroying this country.” So I say “one can only begot what one is, so as Christians we gotta call out Ignorance when we see it. Ignorance cannot begot Genius.” I feel slightly good like when a jigsaw piece fits right into another so I add “obviously.”
I was thinking of all the Ignorance in the world, including Charl, but he was thinking of himself and things got very confusing and required Daddy to come down and sort it out just as the principal was reaching for the paddle he called the Board of Education.
That was a close call.
On the way home in the navy blue Buick, explaining myself again, Daddy leaned over in a low drawl and said, “well, darlin’, that bastard must be a goddam atheist-evolutionist then.” He gently slapped my bare leg that was hanging over the seat. His Jack-o-Lantern smile warmed me up. A piece of his black hair was dancing across his forehead as he spoke.
“You better not tell Mother you said goddam.”
I think bastard is okay cuz she calls him that more times than the garbage truck comes in a month.
The navy blue Buick was good for figuring out things– during Sunday drives to my grandparents, to school on days it was too cold to walk, and on that long trip across four states to see Mount Rushmore, which is a mountain that Daddy said not even God would have thought to make. I did not like the hollow eyes of our Founding Father, George Washington. I thought he looked very dead, even worse than Lincoln who was shot dead and had more right to give death a surprised look. I took naps in the Buick and ate many sandwiches and only once got violently sick. I thought the Buick was a safe place for us.
Two weeks later they are predicting tornados long past tornado season. Daddy is listening to the radio to hear if one has touched down or if one is coming to Payne County, because they got way more tornados than our Creek County. He hears a big one had just touched down ten miles away and wants to go find it before it’s done. He calls to Mother as he is helping me put on my raincoat, but he is in such a hurry that I am twirling around for my sleeve that he keeps pulling too high. I keep yelling “stop” and he keeps yelling at Mother “c’mon” and finally I stamp my foot on his to get his attention.
“Ouch you little sucker. What’s you doing?” he exclaims.
“My sleeve, you bastard,” I hold my jaw out.
For a second he looks surprised and stern and then he laughs from the raspy back of his throat.
“Girlie, you are a pistol! Let’s go find that goddam tornado, shall we?”
He puts his hand out and says “Comrades?” I give him the best comrade slap back, even though that’s Communist, and out the door we go without Mother. We hustle fast to the Buick because the wind is killing us. I cannot shut the door so Daddy has to come around and close it for me. We wheel down the flatline road which is as deserted as the school swing-set in July. I count all the branches and scrub on the road until I reached twenty-seven and stop counting when I see lightening hit just in front of us. It is jagged and blue and makes the sky look black. My hair sizzles with electricity, the ends straight up as fence posts.
“See that power, whoa who!” Daddy said. “If that’s not the God I worship making that.”
He is happy and whooping around. The Buick crosses the centerline but it’s fine because no one but us adventurers are out here. Daddy says most people live lives of silent desperation, and that some storm chasing might make their day. I think miserable people are anything but silent, making all those rules and complaining about the President or the sermon or the cost of something.
By the time we get home it is dark so we know we’ll either get the hand-on-the hip Mother, or the one that stirs the soup in dead silence and says “nothin'” when you ask her what’s wrong. I like the soup Mother but we got the hand-on-hip Mother. They have a bad evening right there and then, and there are a lot of things said. The insults run together in blocks of sounds, beating down the love and building up the fortress of misunderstanding.
I get sent to bed for being in cahoots with him. It is not the time to ask for justice. Later I sneak downstairs when the only sound is the clock on the mantle and I eat Saltines in the pantry with the door ajar like a sword of light crossing my curled-up legs.
Since that talk in the principal’s office and the end of tornado season, the world has begun to change.
We take the Buick into the shop and it gets boosted up higher than a barber chair. I look underneath her. Like the flip side of a turtle, the Buick looks very different under than on top. It is like two personalities in one person. Daddy tries to get me to stand underneath her and look up, but I am worried this vicious beast, which is nothing like the Buick I know, will suddenly come down on me. It is mean from the underside. You can see that, clearly. He pushes me towards its bad side and does what Mother calls cajoling.
“Stop cajoling me,” I frown at him, showing my deepest furrowed brow. I kick the air in front of him for emphasis.
“You are just like your mama when you spit like that.”
We don’t talk while they were putting new tires on, or when they lower her and wash her good side. We don’t talk all the way home until right up to the last minute when Daddy leans over and says “ahhh, don’t be all sore at me, Sugar.”
I can’t last one more minute. A smile sneaks out despite my resisting, and he said “you’re my favorite bug.” Then I know the power of what Mother means when she calls it succumbing to his charms. My Daddy is a big, fat charmer.
“You’re big fat charmer,” I punch him.
“Oh, yeah, you think so?” He is pleased. “‘Wish your mama always thought so.”
“What does she know?” I get going.
“Oh, now, now. Your mama knows a lot. Probably sees the truth more than I’d like to admit.” His eyes drift down the road as we roll towards home.
Next Sunday, Mother and I sit upright in church, stiff as the pews and the starchy choir robes, because today is not a good day between them. Daddy has not come inside with us. We get into the car after church, and Daddy reaches across to touch Mother’s leg saying “Liza” in a voice that I know means many sadnesses and hard words exist but there is still love if you want it. Mother shoots him a fiery brimstone, something I have just learned about in Sunday School, and calls him a “lousysonofabitch” and “anexcuseofaman.”
The hatefulness causes the Buick to go quiet and wakes up her underside. The Buick picks up speed as we get on to the exchange. Mother says she doesn’t want to go to her parents like we naturally always do.
“You are in such a state,” she accuses. “Take us back to the house.”
The Buick will not be persuaded.
Daddy pretends the wind takes her words out the window, as I know it can when I talk into the electric fan and hear the waffle sounds of my own voice. He just keeps saying, “I can’t hear you until you say it sweet, say please.”
We are going too fast so I say “please” instead of Mother. I say it a couple times but no one hears me on account of what has changed. Now the spell has gotten even to the wind, and the spell is science or evolution or what is made not created. It is begetting things in us we are not. It is taking over everything; the origins of man, the moon, and new food in the grocery store in unnatural colored boxes. Science has twisted the wind and is taking my words out of the car. We cannot hear each other. The underbellies are coming to life.
Mother keeps at him to slow down, but I know he can’t — it’s not his fault. She is punching at him but the Buick does not care about Mother’s demands and her finger pointing. It sees that old combine coming the other way, rolling along like a big-jawed animal with a single eye of a driver up high. The combine flashes its lights, winking in agreement with what will come next. Daddy is too busy fending off Mother’s attack.
I think how tight and safe my sandwich bags are between the seats, and decide to hunker down on the floorboard. I hear voices rise, and Mother letting out a screaming cry. I take my PF Flyers and hold onto the half-crescent rubber tips and dig my nails into the soles that are soft from the summer heat. We are suddenly hit by a force bigger than a tornado and loud as the train when it whistles between Creek and Payne County. I hear the sound of metal biting into our creamy white seats, and feel the cold wamp of anger on my head.
You know when you wake up somewhere and the sheets don’t feel right? Maybe they have knobs cuz they’re old, or maybe they are too stiff from drying quick in the summer wind. These sheets felt blanket-y soft with silky edges, and when I open my eyes, I see Grandmother under the florescent lights in a linoleum lined room. I am in the hospital and the blanket is the only soft thing. I pet it involuntarily like an animal, like my Mother pets the seats. Grandmother shoots out of her seat and hugs me and squishes me. She is frantic with instructions and tells me to drink water from the pink plastic cup. I keep rubbing the silky blanket edge between my fingers to keep away from all the hard surfaces.
Eventually Grandpa comes into the room and she says she has something to tell me. She says my Mother is okay. At that moment, I know what every kid always knows: What grownups don’t say is what is most wrong. I burst out in tears for my Daddy that I know is stuck in the combine, which he had been for about two hours until he died. They could not get him out of its jaws before it took all his warm scarlet blood. My Daddy’s blood was always too hot for this world.
Mother is inconsolable which means she cannot come into the room, or bear to look at me, or remember anything that might undo her.
I have a broken arm, that’s all. My Daddy is gone but only my arm is broke. It is my right one and I am a lefty so it is okay. Out of the cast, it looks all white and shrunken. Mother stays inconsolable so I go to my grandparents to live, and then to a new school that fall, which is good since I wasn’t on good terms with my old principal, the evolutionist, whose world it had become and taken my Daddy. Only Daddy had understood me and now he wasn’t here to defend me. I don’t yet have enough self-defense.
It is okay being new at the new school. I have learned a lot about foursquare and snotty people and not arguing if someone says their box is too small. Just let them have it. Don’t have good days or bad days because it’s the medium days that keep you safest on the road, when the wind is high, and the summer is hot and your peanut butter jelly mess in all happy in your stomach, and a dog named Roger That sleeps quietly with you and doesn’t move the whole night, no matter what.
It has been another year now, and I notice the machines rolling up and down that highway, and people talk of the moon and the war that is cold. I don’t know if they like us, those things we say we make and set in the sky, but I think that Buick must have liked us for a time and then had enough of us. In the end, she took us on her own road. It was the underneath side that won. Like the underside of people, the part we don’t want to see when we sit in the backseat on a hot summer day. The underside takes us, not the beautiful navy blue paint that shows metallic in the summer sun, or the soft cream colored seats, sweet like a pet, that would have never done us any harm.
© 2018, Darcy Roennfeldt