My mom has narcolepsy so she bought a student driver car with a steering wheel in the passenger side seat. Whenever she drives anywhere, I ride shotgun. If she falls asleep while she’s driving I’m supposed to elbow her awake. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes when she nods off instead of hitting the brakes I press down on my gas pedal and drive over to the strip mall where my ex-girlfriend Sadie works.
Sadie just got her license, but I’ve got six months to go. Sadie works at Elaine’s Boutique, a crappy jewelry store that sells shitty silver pendants and fake gold chains. No one goes to Elaine’s so most days Sadie’s new boyfriend, Eric, stops by to keep her company. Sometimes Sadie and Eric do their geometry homework, but mostly they snort Sadie’s Ritalin and kiss long and hard like their tongues are the geometry problem.
“Quit going there,” my friend Jason tells me. “Remove yourself from the equation.”
I adjust the focus on my binoculars, watch Eric snake his hand up Sadie’s shirt. My mom gently snores in the seat beside me, drool welling in the corner of her mouth.
“But that used to be me,” I tell Jason.
My dad used to drive us everywhere, but he bolted three months ago. He sends us a letter every few weeks. His last letter said he was working on a fishing boat in Alaska. The postmark on the last letter was stamped “Cleveland”, so we don’t know what to believe.
“Cleveland or Alaska,” my mom says. “The only thing that matters is he’s gone.”
This morning my mom and I drive to the grocery store. She makes it three blocks before her eyes slide shut. I drive the rest of the way. As I angle the car into a parking spot, Jason calls.
“Party at Clare Lowalke’s tonight,” he says. “Can you get the car?”
I look over at my mom, fast asleep, her face mashed against the driver’s side window, her mouth wide open.
“No problem,” I tell Jason.
I ask my mom if she wants to go to the Valley-Hi. It’s a shithole drive-in outside town that’s somehow hanging on.
“Wow,” my mom says, “that would be lovely.”
My mom takes a bath before we go. I stand outside the bathroom door listening to her sing. If she stops singing it means she’s drowning. If she stops singing, I need to rush in and pull her out of the tub. She’s only stopped singing in the bathtub once. I ran in and pulled her out of the tub right before her face slid under the water.
“We should do this kind of thing more often,” she yells to me through the bathroom door.
“Absolutely we should,” I say.
On the way to the movie, my mom zonks out. I drive over to Jason’s and pick him up.
“This is insane,” he says. “What if she wakes up?”
“She won’t,” I tell him.
We wander into Clare Lowalke’s backyard; buy cups for the keg. Everyone here is older than us, juniors and seniors, but they all know who I am.
“You’re the kid with the sleepy mom, right?” one guy asks. “Does she smoke a lot of weed? Is that why she can’t stay awake?”
I know Sadie’s around here somewhere. I ditch Jason and wander around the party. I find her in one of the back bedrooms, passed out in Eric’s arms. I brought another note explaining how special we were together and how special we could be again. When I set the note down next to her on the bed, her eyes snap open.
“What in the fuck?” she says.
“I thought maybe we could talk things over,” I say. “I miss you.”
“Maybe you’ll understand this,” Sadie says, curling up in Eric’s arms and closing her eyes.
After I drop Jason off, I poke my mom awake.
“You slept through the movie,” I say.
“Why didn’t you wake me up?” she asks.
“You looked so peaceful,” I tell her. “You look like you needed the sleep.”
I want to say something about Sadie, about how I’m going crazy over this breakup, but I don’t. I keep my mouth shut, my hands at ten and two.
“How was the movie?” she asks.
“Really sad,” I tell her.
The next day my mom and I take the car to get the oil changed. She falls asleep and I drive over to the strip mall one last time. While I’m sitting in the parking lot watching Sadie a young mother brings in her baby into Elaine’s Boutique to get her ears pierced. The kid’s maybe a year old. I watch through my binoculars as Sadie props the baby up in the piercing chair. The baby’s face is so damn happy, smiling and giggling, but then the piercing gun rifles through her ear and the baby’s face is transformed into an angry red ball.
Sadie’s a pro. While the baby screeches, she holds out a mirror in front of the baby’s face. She whispers, shh, shh, look, look, little one, look how pretty. Soon the baby stops, sees the jewels in her ears, and smiles and the tears slide away. I find a sad song on the radio and put the car in drive. I scream out the lyrics as I speed off. My mom doesn’t stir at all.
John Jodzio is a winner of the Loft-McKnight Fellowship and the author of the short story collections, Get In If You Want To Live (Paper Darts Press) and If You Lived Here You’d Already Be Home (Replacement Press). His work has been featured in a variety of places including This American Life, McSweeney’s, and One Story. He lives in Minneapolis.