The Vagabond Motor Lodge sat across the street from the Fiji Island restaurant, wedged between Johnny’s Auto Parts and a gas station with a flying horse on its neon sign. Our first few days staying there felt like a vacation. In the morning, after Dad left for his new job, we swam in the motel pool, doing cannonballs off the diving board as my mother lay out under a blue canvas umbrella with white fringe, watching cars go by on the highway. In 1972, I’d just turned twelve, and my family had moved for the third time in so many years. The August heat was ruthless on the bright cement, relenting only in bluish spots of shade. There was glamour in the way the heat slowed my body down and penetrated every moment with languor. In the late afternoon, when it was time for my little brother, Philip, to nap, we walked in our wet bathing suits across the parking lot, heat rising around us in visible waves. Our mother let us stop at the gumball machine outside the front office. Inside, the motel owner, a bald man who wore a Texas string tie, sat with his little dog, Mr. Buddy, on his lap, watching television.
We were moving again and the reason was, as my father frankly told us, that there were not many jobs for defrocked ministers. The members of First Methodist hadn’t liked when my dad let his hair grow so long it brushed his coat collar, or that he traded his clerical collar for bell-bottoms and blue shirts with wide ties. They didn’t like it when he encouraged the youth choir to sing “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” accompanied by guitars rather than the organ, and they really didn’t like it when he started a Gestalt workshop in the church basement and began preaching against Vietnam. When he held a commitment ceremony for Barry and Don, a parishioner complained. This led to a clergy trial, with a jury of nine Methodist ministers who decided that his actions were not compatible with Christian teaching. They read from the Book of Discipline, stripped him of his credentials, and—from what I heard—my dad, who refused to defend himself anyway, walked down the center aisle and into secular life.
After getting fired, Dad stayed in bed and read from a pile of old New York Review of Books that we dragged from the rectory to each new rented house. He read books about history, science, and psychology. Once he was over the shock, he started to get enthusiastic: church doctrine was draconian; we’d figure out our own relationship to God. He gathered us together and explained that we were going to make a fresh start in Virginia.
It would have been nice if my mother was the strong, long-suffering type, but this was not the case; with every move she got a bit more unhinged. When we were supposed to be asleep, she cried to my father about how unhappy she was. Explained the she felt like a zero, a nothing. Listening to her, I tried to judge her freak-out level. She was at a 5 pretty much all the time. Brow furrowed, vaguely unhappy. Often, say, around the dinner table, she got to a 4 or even a 3 if my dad was sullen or my little brother complained about the food. She’d been at a 2 the whole drive down, but now she was at a 3, a good 3, not a bad 3.
When we got back to our room the owner’s wife had made up our beds, vacuumed, given us new towels. She was skinny as a skeleton as she pushed her cart, loaded with tiny bars of soap, glasses in white paper, and clean towels. Every day while she worked inside the rooms, jerking her bones around as she pushed the vacuum, I gazed at the cart until I got up enough courage to ask for more motel writing paper. She turned off the vacuum, gave me a sour look, and told me the stationery wasn’t kiddie stuff, but she guessed I could have a page or two. She didn’t know I was writing a long letter to Francie from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, telling her about myself and also how sorry I was her father drank.
By midweek we still hadn’t moved into our duplex in Bent Tree. We no longer walked down the highway, parking lot to parking lot, to Sambo’s for dinner, but instead ate American cheese sandwiches and chips from a big foil bag we bought at the convenience store.
After dinner we took baths and got into our pajamas, and our mother let us out in front of our room to play in the parking lot. Across the street the Fiji Island was lit up so we could see the huge carved Easter Island statues on either side of the bamboo doors. The sign out front, bookended by plastic palm trees, read PINA COLADAS—TWO FOR THREE DOLLARS. For some reason nobody could explain, an old railroad car sat to one side of the parking lot. My mom knocked on the window from inside our room, pointed to the highway and shook her head vigorously. Then she leaned against the orange headboard and read a magazine, occasionally glancing to the television screen where Nixon’s head was huge and wiggly like the bobblehead dogs older people liked to put in the back windows of their cars.
In the half-light we ran around the motel to the Dumpster. Across a mangy field was a farmhouse that had wandered out of an earlier time period, gotten lost, and was now unable to find its way back. Fireflies floated over the field and above the farmhouse. Tiered up the side of the mountain were brick ranch houses, lit in two colors: incandescent gold if the families inside were having dinner, or indigo blue if they were watching television.
I wanted to crouch down in the field and pretend the Viet Cong were after us. But I could tell this game frightened Phillip. Whenever he was scared he pretended to look very carefully at some object on the ground, in this case chunks of parking lot gravel.
As it got darker the fireflies rose up and we went back around to the front of the motel to spy on the owner. Mr. Buddy sat delicately on the bald man’s lap as if he were the dog of a French diplomat. The owner and his wife lived behind the office and we could see them through the doorway at the back; the wife rattled around the kitchen.
The parking lot was packed with cars, license plates from Alabama, Mississippi, even Florida and Texas. The backseats were jammed with coolers, stacks of magazines, and clothes hung from hooks above the back doors. A fat man who held his pants together with an expanse of rope had dragged a chair from his room and was sitting out smoking.
The fireflies multiplied; there were so many it was easy to reach out and catch one and hold it in the palm of your hand. Phillip got his Wiffle bat and swung at the bugs until he had a patch of glowing tails stuck to the plastic. He smeared the tails over his forehead so his skin glowed.
After we caught as many as we could in the ice bucket, I opened the motel-room door and told my mother we had a surprise for her. “Now what?” she said, letting the magazine she’d been reading fall to the bedspread. She and my dad had yelled at each other earlier and now he was in the motel bar reading his book and drinking a beer.
I turned off the overhead light, then lifted the top of the ice bucket so the fireflies rose into the room and began to blink over the bed and around the night table. One flickered so close to my mother’s face that I could see the white of her eyes.
“How will we get them out of here?” she said.
Though her voice sounded worried I could tell by the way her eyes followed the little lights around the room that she liked the fireflies. After a while she helped us trap the bugs again and let them go outside.
I had trouble sleeping. To try to calm myself I thought about our life before we left the church. Dad used to say prayers before every meal; he sat on my bed and prayed with me at night. There were Sunday services, Sunday school, funerals, baptisms. When I slipped into the church in the late afternoons, the altar was dark and beautiful. The crimson carpet, the blues and greens from the stained glass like a doomed kingdom under the sea. We visited the lonely, we collected cans of food for hungry people, coats for people who were cold. We prayed for sick babies. We were at the center of what I thought of as THE HOLY, and our every move had weight and meaning. But out in the world away from church, we floated free. What if my dad did not come back? What if he met a lady in the bar he liked better than my mom, one who wasn’t always complaining about money? One who didn’t tell stories about giant worms in New Guinea that lived in your intestines or housewives who laid their bodies down over railroad tracks? He might go off when the bar closed and we’d never see him again. I sometimes imagined my father had another family. Rather than upsetting me, this gave me a certain respect for him. This second family would explain why he was always so preoccupied.
Our room was not far from the motel lounge with its orange hanging lights with wrought-iron filigree. Cars came and went; as it got later people laughed loudly in the parking lot and used the cigarette machine just outside our door. I watched the few remaining fireflies bob in the air, blinking on and off. I tried to stay awake to see my father, but I must have fallen asleep. When I woke again he was lying beside my mother and there was just one bug left flying frantically by the doorway.
The next day my mother forced my dad to go over to Bent Tree and give the manager an ultimatum: if we couldn’t move in by Friday, we were going to ask for our deposit back and look for another place to live. Usually when my parents talked seriously my father sat beside my mom, but on his return he paced the floor and his eyes kept opening wide as he went up on his toes. He talked as if the details of our life were an exciting movie, not anything that actually affected us.
“Get this!” he said. “The woman who is in the unit we’re supposed to move into has barricaded herself inside. She told us through the door that while she was moving out Sunday morning, her ex-husband threatened her with a knife.”
“Lovely,” my mom said.
Her mouth turned down around the edges and her chin started to quiver like it always did when she was about to cry. Seeing my mother in such misery jolted my sleepy bloodstream like a candy bar. My mind started to click down my well-worn list of ways I could help her: (1) Write an anonymous letter about what a great person she was. (2) Spend my allowance on lottery tickets. If I won, which I figured I was bound to do if I really concentrated hard, I could buy her the house she was always talking about. (3) Run away from home so she wouldn’t have me to worry about anymore. I knew that last one would hurt her more than help her; a few items on my list were radical. Rather than make her feel better, they were meant to throw a glass of cold water in her face.
My father continued to talk about the evil ex-husband. I pictured him sitting in his pickup truck looking at the duplexes through binoculars and playing with his Swiss army knife. He wore a red bandana on his head and mirrored sunglasses. I pretended to shift in my sleep, so I could see my mother in the dark hotel room. Her eyes were large and wet as she watched Johnny Carson. A 3 moving toward a 2. To my mom, the intrigue with the woman was just another example of how our life was in decline, one more detail added to the long list of others, chief among them the fact that we couldn’t afford to buy a house on my father’s tiny salary.
Sometimes when my mother cried and said she wanted a house, Phillip, who was four, would rub her back and tell her not to worry, he was going to buy a big house when he grew up, and everybody could live there—not just us, but all our friends, grandmas and grandpas, birds, all the rabbits and mice. Even polar bears, if they promised to be nice and not eat anyone.
I’d had the same fantasy for a while, that I’d grow up, get rich, and buy her a house that looked like the Taj Mahal; to me the pink marble and deep purple reflecting pools looked like heaven. But I was getting tired of her endless longing. Wherever we lived wasn’t good enough. We might call it a house, and think of it as “our house,” but to Mom no place we’d lived in was nice enough to be a house. It was as if the walls had fallen down, and we were just camping out, completely exposed to the elements.
It rained all day Friday. We watched television as heavy drops pelted the big plate-glass window. We fought over whose turn it was to get ice from the machine at the end of the open corridor. The ice machine sat next to the candy machine, each bar of chocolate lit up like a tiny god.
In the evening the rain cleared and we drove over to Bent Tree, passing Long John Silver’s, Hardee’s, and a 24-hour do-it-yourself car wash. There was a drive-in movie theater playing a film called Dallas Girls and a string of brick ranch houses with Christmas lights up around the porches and a sign by the road that read MASSAGE.
Eventually the strip malls got farther apart, interspersed with black glass professional buildings and churches on both sides of the highway. Just before we turned off, there was a brick church with white columns, a steeple, and a sign that read SIN KNOCKS A HOLE IN YOUR BUCKET OF JOY. The parking lot was empty and glittering under the overhead light.
Off the highway I counted thirteen NIXON FOR PRESIDENT signs stuck in front yards. My father hated Nixon, but I felt sorry for the president because he always looked so dazed and miserable. Warm air came through the window, damp from the rain and tinged with the scent of dirt and grape juice.
I didn’t understand why we couldn’t rent a different duplex in one of the other developments—Lux Manor, Sans Souci, Evergreen Estates—spread like bread mold over the side of the mountains. My dad was acting like he did when he was a pastor, like everyone else’s life was more important than our own. He drove slumped back in the seat, his hand dangling over the wheel, the motel envelope holding the rental listings from the local paper on the dashboard. He intended to slip the envelope under the woman’s door and gently encourage her to think about moving out.
When he told us his plan, my mother had been folding clothes she’d just brought back from the Laundromat, a pair of my little brother’s corduroys on her lap. She looked up at him.
“That’s your plan?” she asked.
In the last few days she’d rolled her eyes whenever my father talked about how much he liked his brand-new job at the VA hospital, or said something about the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Most of the car ride she’d been silent, her head pressed dramatically against the window frame, but as the car climbed the mountain and my father said we were close, she started to talk. Her features became unfocused, and when she opened her mouth I knew she was going to say something about rich people.
“Did you know in Hyannis Port the Kennedys keep a pony for the children to ride?”
“I wish we had a pony,” Phillip said.
Between places, while we were in transit, she always went back to the Kennedys. Once settled in a town she picked a nearby rich family. In Philadelphia it had been the Westerfields. She knew the girls went to Emma Willard for boarding school and that they summered in Lions Head, Maine. She knew that their house had six bedrooms and that each bathroom was fitted with delft tile.
I was sick of the Westerfields as well as the Kennedys. I had to hear about Caroline, how she had christened the USS John F. Kennedy with her mother, Jackie, how she once received a puppy from Khrushchev and was moving schools from Sacred Heart to Brearley. My mother went on reviewing. John-John had spent the summer on a dude ranch. The Onassis yacht had a hot tub and a steam room. Then, as my dad tapped the brakes and took a left turn onto a road lined with freshly planted pine trees, she turned to new information she’d gotten out of the Roanoke World-News. She’d learned that the Vanhoffs were Roanoke’s first family. Mr. Vanhoff was president of Shenandoah Life Insurance Company. His great-grandfather had been governor. The paper said Mr. Vanhoff had hosted the fund-raising golf tournament at the Roanoke Country Club while Mrs. Vanhoff had taken her children to the family’s vacation compound on a private lake in Michigan. There they raised rabbits and took French lessons. While my mother spoke, I bent my fingers up and back so slowly I was able to slow time down, so the syllables of what she said were so far apart the words were unrecognizable. I imagined that I was one of the astronauts on Apollo 15 landing the Falcon on the Apennine mountain range, taking the lunar rover for a spin on the silent surface of the moon. After trying to catch our eyes in the rearview mirror she realized neither Phillip nor I were going to respond.
“Here we are!” my dad said as we passed the Bent Tree sign and pulled onto a street lined on either side by two-story duplexes. Twenty-five units climbed up the side of the mountain, each a boxy red-brick building with six front windows, two doors, and tin chimneys like mushrooms springing up from the roof. My dad had made the place sound like a fancy mountaintop resort, the sort of hotel in which the young heroines in the books I read spent their summers. But the duplexes in Bent Tree looked more like army barracks.
The manager, a short man with a comb-over and a huge set of keys dangling from his belt, was waiting for us. He looked like an even smaller version of Sonny Bono, bereft without his Cher.
Dad followed the manager into the duplex and we sat in the car waiting. Insects throbbed and a bird shrieked back in the woods. My little brother crawled over the seat and got in Mom’s lap. The top half of each duplex was covered in beige aluminum siding; strips had fallen off here and there, exposing patches of gray cement. Most of the windows were covered with blinds, but a few people had strung sheets over the glass. One showed a Confederate flag. A rusty grill lay on its side and a few motorcycles were parked along the street. In the yard next to our unit was a concrete birdbath.
As we drove out of Bent Tree, my father told my mother how the woman inside our duplex wouldn’t speak to him or the manager. The manager said Bent Tree’s owner felt once you’d signed the contract, you’d committed yourself to spending at least a year in the development. Still, if an annulment was needed, if we really wanted our deposit back, he would issue us a check. My mother didn’t answer; she just ran her hand through my brother’s hair as he slept on her lap. I kept waiting for Dad to tell us about his plan B but he was quiet. I knew my father wouldn’t get his first check for another week and we were down to our last forty dollars and that the motel room cost $19.95 a night. I knew, too, that we couldn’t go back to Philadelphia; our house held a new family, a young couple with a baby. Once, when a job hadn’t worked out, we’d gone to live with Dad’s parents. Another time we’d stayed with my mother’s sister for a few weeks, but my aunt had made it clear when we left that that would be the last time.
The sun had gone down and my dad turned on the car headlights. After a while he stopped on the side of the road and spoke to a hitchhiker waiting on the soft shoulder. The man wore a small backpack, a cheesecloth shirt, and jeans with a V cut in the bottom of each leg and a triangle of paisley material sewn in to make the bell swing wide. His curly brown hair fell at his collarbone and he had a mass of freckles. Most thrilling was the string of seeds—Love Beads—around his neck. The young man got into our station wagon. I was all the way in the back lying on my stomach, reading the funny pages of the newspaper with a flashlight. I peered over the seat. My mother had smeared white cream on a rash around my mouth and I was terrified an actual hippie might see my greasy face, or worse, the red dots all over my chin.
“Hi, everybody!” he said. “My name is Guy.”
“Where you headed, Guy?” my father asked in the nothing-to-lose voice he always used when talking to hippies.
“Up to Floyd,” Guy said. Floyd was farther up in the mountains, the place local hippies hung out. I could tell my father was disappointed with Guy’s reply. I knew my father felt if Guy was free enough to be a real hippie, he would march in protests against Vietnam, or head for the Deep South to register black voters. I knew Dad had been sad to miss the fund-raiser that spring for McGovern, the one where James Taylor and Carole King sang.
“Do you live up there?”
“Oh no,” Guy said. “I’m just checking it out.”
Wow! I thought. Guy doesn’t have a home either. But unlike us, he didn’t seem to care; he was living free and easy. Sitting sideways in the backseat, looking out the window, he told us he’d hitched up to Maine, which was crazy beautiful. He was thinking about checking out Japan. A guy he knew was teaching English. My mother pressed her body against the passenger-side door, as if Guy might have head lice. Just before we pulled off the highway we let Guy out. I turned to see him receding in the glow of our headlights. He walked backward carrying a cardboard sign that read: HELLO, FELLOW HUMAN! CAN YOU SPARE A RIDE?
After Guy was gone, my father talked about life on the road, speculating on the potential for adventure. We could buy a camper and just take off, live in the moment. I knew he was saying this so he wouldn’t have to talk about Bent Tree. Finally he asked my mother what she thought we should do. She didn’t answer. She stared out the window, her lips pressed together.
Back in the motel room she went into the bathroom to change into her nightgown and take off her make-up. When she came out she flung herself on the bed. At first my dad continued to try to talk to her, saying if the woman—whose name was Miranda—wasn’t out by Sunday, that was it, that was absolutely the cut-off date. Mom didn’t say anything. She just lay on the bed staring at the dull ceiling, her eyes open and empty like a dead person’s.
After a while Dad gave up trying to talk to her. He got us changed into our pajamas. I heard the television in the room next door and in the parking lot a car door slammed. My brother fell asleep immediately. I pretended to sleep, every now and then letting out a long dramatic breath to prove I was unconscious.
My mother stood up and walked over to the phone on the dresser beside the television. She had on her mint-green nightgown and she’d taken off her mascara so the skin around her eyes was smudged.
“I’m going to call my parents and see if I can take the children there.”
“Don’t do that,” my father said from behind his newspaper.
She picked up the receiver and put her finger into the plastic dial.
“I’m sick of this,” she said. “I’m calling right now.”
“Don’t!” My father lowered the paper.
My mother pulled the rotary to the end and let it ratchet back.
He stood up and tried to take the phone from her hand, but she held on so hard the skin over her bones turned white.
“Don’t touch me,” she said, holding the receiver over her head.
“You’ll feel better when you’re in the duplex,” he said, taking the receiver from her hand and placing it back into its cradle. “You’re just tired.”
She let him lead her over to the bed, but when he tried to put his arm around her she shrugged him off and moved back to her earlier position on the far side of the mattress, her face to the wall.
In the night, when the train whistle woke me, rattling the window beside my bed, I saw through the dark that my mom was still lying on top of the covers, now in her quilted bathrobe, her back to me, her face toward the wall. I thought she was at a 2 moving toward a 1, but then I heard her long, even breaths and realized she’d fallen asleep. My dad was sitting in the vinyl chair by the television. At first I thought he was sleeping too, but then I saw the whites of his eyes gleam in the parking lot light slanting through the break in the curtains. Of course he was worried about my mom, where we’d live, if we had enough money, but I think his grand plan was also failing. He’d given up church stuff, the prayers, the creeds, the vows that he had told me were a waste of time. He didn’t want to dig a channel, he wanted to find the spring and let it flow over us. We were, he had told me with great enthusiasm, in a period of devolution, unlearning what we knew. It seemed crazy to me that my dad was trying to get to a place without maps, or directions. He was tired, confused, despairing. And what if God actually was dead like a lot of people said? Then, rather than finding Him, my Dad was going to have to invent Him all by himself.
Early in the morning, Dad came in with donuts. He told us he’d already been back up to Bent Tree. Miranda was gone and we could move in. We got dressed and threw everything into our suitcases. On the drive Dad played the radio, and he kept glancing over at my mom in her paisley head scarf and sunglasses.
“You look like a movie star going incognito,” he told her.
She turned her head toward him and softened her mouth.
As we pulled up in front of our duplex, Mr. Ananais, the manager, stood by the curb waiting for us.
“She’s still in there,” he said. “I had her out earlier this morning but she got spooked and locked herself back in.”
“Now what?” my mother said.
“Well,” the manager said hesitantly, “I think if she heard the children’s voices—”
“No way,” my mother said. “I’m not having my kids exposed to some lunatic.”
“Come on,” my dad said. “It’s worth a try.”
“I’m not going,” my mom said, looking straight out the window.
“I’ll go,” I said.
“Me too,” said Phillip.
Inside the duplex a few boxes were stacked against walls. The floor was covered with mangy gold shag and the walls were white, holes here and there where pictures had hung. The rooms smelled like incense.
Mr. Ananais led us upstairs, down a short hallway to a closed bedroom door.
“Miranda,” Mr. Ananais said, “the new tenants are here.”
Beyond the door, mattress springs released and I heard soft footsteps moving closer. I could hear Miranda breathing against the wood.
“I’m in a very bad mood,” she said.
“Do you want me to tell you more stories about my cat?” Mr. Ananais asked.
Dad looked at me with his eyes wide open. Mr. Ananais was more accommodating to the woman than either of us had expected.
“Yes,” Miranda said, “that would be nice.”
“Well my cat, Hector, likes to watch TV. Bonanza is his favorite show. He knows exactly when it comes on each afternoon. If it’s not on, he gets mad and goes to the television and meows until I turn it on. I put a pillow down and he lies with his paws folded in front of him.”
Mr. Ananais looked at my father, who was flushed and smiling. More than anything else in life, Dad grooved on surreal situations. If my mom had been here, she’d have been whispering that this was crazy.
“Why don’t you say hello, kids?” Mr. Ananais suggested.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m Jesse. I’m twelve . . .”
What else would she like to know about me? I could tell her how I loved to read or that lavender was my favorite color, but in the end I went with my favorite candy bar.
“. . . and I love Almond Joy bars . . .”
“I like fire engines,” Phillip said. “And pizza!”
There was silence but it had a different texture, more like macramé than leather.
“Come on, koukla,” Mr. Ananais said. “Remember how we talked about having to call the police? I really don’t want to do that.”
“Are you threatening me?”
“No, no, no,” Mr. Ananais said. “But really, what do you want us to do? This nice family wants to move in here, these children need a place to sleep, you can’t just stay locked in there forever.”
“What if he comes back?”
“I already told you,” Mr. Ananais said. “His mother says he’s gone to Texas.”
There was quiet from behind the door.
“Are you still there?” Mr. Ananais asked.
“Where else would I be?”
“Are you coming out?” he asked.
“Could you sing me a song?” she asked. “I think that would settle my nerves.”
The only song we all knew was “Jingle Bells,” and before we got through the first verse, our car horn sounded.
“That’s him!” Miranda screamed.
Mr. Ananais looked at my father. I knew he was worried that any gains would be lost if Miranda got frightened.
“We’ll go,” Dad said. “We’ll come back in an hour or so.”
In the car my mother’s face was fixed in a smile that was not a smile at all. She’d moved over to the driver’s side and before we had our doors shut she took off down the mountain, speeding past the ranch houses in the subdivision below.
“Getting us killed,” my father said, placing a hand on the dashboard to steady himself, “isn’t going to solve anything.”
“Is she coming out?”
“I think so,” my father said. “Though you may have ruined it by laying on the horn.”
“Now it’s my fault?”
“I didn’t say that.”
My mom swung around a corner, coming so close to a boxwood hedge that the branches scraped against the side of the car.
“Remember that guy who came to our door in Philadelphia saying he was a narcoleptic?” my mother said.
“He was very convincing,” my father said. “He fell asleep several times right in front of me!”
She pulled onto the highway and sped out toward the interstate. We were going so fast that the buildings and trees melded into one long ribbon, unfurling behind the car.
“Remember the time you gave a hundred dollars to that slut?”
“She was a member of the congregation and she was pregnant,” my father said.
“Remember how you used to go to the loony bin every single Saturday?”
“I was making pastoral visits.”
“When you let that drug addict sleep in our guest room he drank all our cough syrup.”
“For God’s sake slow down,” my dad said.
“You want me to stop?”
“Say please,” she said.
“Please,” my dad said.
She hit the brake and we all flew forward, then fell back hard against the seats as she rolled the car onto the shoulder. The tires crunched on the gravel and the fender pressed against a patch of weeds.
Throwing open the door, my mother stumbled out of the car and started to walk down the side of the highway, her dress whipping around her knees in the wind and the silky tails of her head scarf bobbing. Heat made the air muzzy and thick as if she were going through a time warp, moving away from us into another dimension.
My dad slipped into the driver’s seat. I made funny faces at Phillip. We were screwing up our mouths and shaking our heads, but when Dad turned around we froze.
“Your mother’s upset,” he said.
“Understatement of the universe,” I said.
“I want Mommy,” Phillip whined.
My dad put on the hazards and drove up behind her. He kept so close that I could see the muscles flexing in the backs of her legs. She was pretending to enjoy her little walk along the highway, looking at the weeds in the ditch, glancing up at the hazy sky.
“Just tell her you’re sorry,” I said. “That’s all she wants to hear.”
Dad leaned his head out the car window.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “OK? Just please get back in the car.”
She turned, took off her sunglasses, and looked at us through the windshield. Her face was pink and wet and her eyelids were so swollen she looked like a sea creature. Behind her was a string of fast food restaurants, a McDonald’s followed by the Long John Silver’s and the Hardee’s. Every time a car sped by, her clothes sucked against her body. She stared at us for what seemed like a very long time—at least a million years.
This is it, I thought, this is when she decides to leave us and start her new life.
Darcey Steinke is the author of the memoir Easter Everywhere (a New York Times notable book) and the novels Milk, Jesus Saves, Suicide Blonde, and Up Through the Water (also a New York Times notable book). With Rick Moody, she edited Joyful Noise: The New Testament Revisited. Her books have been translated into ten languages, and her nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, the Boston Review, Vogue, Spin, The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and the Guardian. Her web-story “Blindspot” was a part of the 2000 Whitney Biennial. She has been both a Henry Hoyns and a Stegner Fellow and Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi, and has taught at the Columbia University School of the Arts, Barnard, The American University of Paris, and Princeton. She lives in New York City.