*Featured Artwork: “Keeping Afloat” by Barbara Carter
Those driven by nostalgia remember 1980 as the year of the Lake Placid Olympics, of the Mount St. Helens eruption, of John Lennon’s murder and Ian Curtis’ suicide, or of the big reveal: who shot J.R. Ewing on Dallas. A typical eight-year-old doesn’t particularly care about those things, and eight-year-old me definitely did not. Rather, I remember 1980 as the year of my mother’s homicidal car.
My mother drove a blue Volkswagen bug that sounded like a dying jet engine filled with marbles. My childhood is marked by a long succession of clunker cars that my mother bought out of poverty and desperation, but the blue bug was something special. And by special, I mean awful. And by awful, I mean that anyone in town who cared to listen could tell we were coming from miles away simply by the turbulent clatter of the car.
My mother bought it from a man who owed my grandfather a favor. What kind of a favor a guy might owe a dairy farmer-turned-insurance salesman is unknown, but the favor called in to procure the car cheaply must not have been very high level. In addition to the hideous noises that preceded the car wherever we went, it was also necessary to jump-start it relatively often. A rusted-out patch on the floor in the back seat was a hazard for whoever wasn’t fast enough to call shot-gun!—tiny rocks would sometimes ricochet up through the hole at the speed of a bullet, piercing skin or drawing blood. The locks worked only as often as prayer, and no one was allowed to roll down the windows because there was no guarantee they would roll back up. The interior smelled as though a thousand mice had crawled inside, peed everywhere, and then died somewhere inaccessible and unknowable.
Horrifying in every way though the blue bug might be, it did what it was supposed to do: got my mother to work. Not reliably. Not quietly. But it’s what she could afford to drive over the mountain to her crappy factory job du jour in Hazelton, Pennsylvania—and she dutifully drove it around, pretending not to be mortified by the noise and the smell of piss and death.
“I need to go to the grocery store for bread,” my mother announced one Saturday morning. “Go get your shoes on.”
“Shot-gun!” I yelled at my brother.
He was only five, but even at that age the terrors of the backseat were not unknown to him; he had a red and pink constellation of leg nicks to prove it. “Mooooooooooom,” he said, “I was in the back last time.”
“Just sit in the back.” She rifled through her oversized purse and glared.
I sprinted past my brother and out the kitchen door to the car, dirty sneakers clutched in my hand. The morning was still chilly—cold enough for a jacket, but going back into the house wasn’t an option. Not when the front seat was at stake. The door miraculously opened on the first attempt when I tried the handle. Having won the day, or at least the hour, I shimmied along the seat, shoved my feet into my shoes, and laced them as my mom locked the house behind my moping brother.
By the time my mother was behind the wheel—doing her usual “no whammies” rosary for the car to start on the first shot (or at all)—I sat prim and proper in the passenger side seat, with my brother behind me flicking his thumb and middle finger against the back of my blonde head. And by the time the blue bug had chugged its way down our gravel driveway and into town and we neared the store, he’d grown tired of the game—or it might just have been that he was curled up in the fetal position to avoid the rocks.
At the very least, he was spared the trauma of seeing—as my mom careened around the corner—the passenger side door whip wide open and drag me along with it.
It was suddenly very loud. Louder, anyway. The marble-laden jet engine sputtered and the noise of immediately beeping cars scraped into my ears as I hung onto the door handle. My feet were hooked inside the car, toes of my sneakers wedged along the door frame. The road beneath the rest of my body whizzed by as fast as a carnival ride.
I screamed. My mother screamed. And despite the fact that my brother still lay in the back seat and couldn’t see anything at all, his scream mixed with all the other racket pounding in my ears.
There was a frantic tug on the leg of my jeans. I tore my panic away from the road below to the yanking—my mother had lurched across the torn seat to snag a handful of pant leg, still one hand on the steering wheel. Her wide eyes were barely at the dashboard level. The cars parked along the side of the road swung closer, passing within inches of the open door I now clung to like a shield.
Death doesn’t have real meaning for most eight-year-olds, and I was no exception—although I knew that the situation was not good. Not good at all. Even when my mom finally wrestled the car to a stop, I could not will my fingers to release the door handle. I hovered there, taut and clenching, butt inches above the now-still road. I hung on like my life depended on it and gulped the exhausted-scented air. At least I had stopped screaming.
The same could not be said about my mother, who had exited the car, vaulted over the hood action movie-style, and was prying me out of the door frame. She patted me down, practically slapping her fury and agitation into me. “Are you hurt? Are you bleeding?”
When she stopped, I stared at her until she said, her voice abruptly calm, “Okay, well. Get back in the car. I still need bread. Let’s go. Don’t lean on the door this time.”
I climbed in, but the world still seemed tilted. I glanced over my shoulder. My brother sat wide-eyed in the back, a slightly mystified expression on his round face.
I attempted a smile, but in the side mirror it looked more like a rictus of terror. I said to him in the reflection, “Shot-gun sucks.”