We’re crossing into Arizona when Mom looks into the rearview mirror and says to me, We’re never going back. And she’s wearing her hot pink nail polish so I know she means it. I lean against the window, cheek pressed to the glass, and watch the telephone poles whiz by.
There isn’t much to see here besides gas stations, trailer parks and casinos. The earth is flat and the sky is full of orange like sherbet ice cream. The clouds are purple and bloated and hanging just above the horizon line. Mom points out over the dashboard at the setting sun, where straight lines of light shoot out from behind dark clouds. How beautiful is that? she asks. And I don’t say anything back, I don’t give her an answer, because I know an answer isn’t what she’s looking for. She repeats it: How beautiful—her voice is lower this time, hollow at its end—How beautiful is that?
Mom used to tell me stories all the time but she doesn’t as much anymore. I remember one of the stories that she told me, when I was still too young to sit in the front of the pickup with her, about what happens to the color in the sky when the day is leaving. She said there was a big drain out west that sucked everything away and made the night. And God was the one who pulled the plug, that’s what she said. And when I asked her who God was, she told me: He’s the one who pulls the plug.
The stories were always full of stuff she made up to entertain me and to help explain things that neither of us understood. But now she says I’m getting too old for made up stuff—too old for stories and too old to get sleepy when she drives but here I am, getting sleepy, wishing she was telling me a story full of made up stuff. And I’m afraid of the day when she stops. The day the pickup quits rattling and the vents on the passenger side quit blowing warm air on my face. I’m afraid of the day her voice runs out and she stops humming between thoughts, the way she always does, like there’s a song she knows by heart playing on some radio I’m too young to hear.
The hotel is still another five hours away. We’ll have to stop again. We’ll eat, hopefully at I-HOP, so I can get free pancakes and we can share them, and we’ll fill up the tank, and even though it’s getting late, we’ll manage. Because we’ve done this before, and because we’ve always managed.
She says we’ll pull off at the next rest stop to stretch out our legs and I know she’s tired because “stretch out our legs” really means “I need a cigarette,” and she’s too good of a mother to smoke while I’m in the car with her. And besides, she only smokes these days, even when I’m not in the car with her, when she’s too tired to think straight. And I tell her that’s good we’re stopping because I have to pee and she gets annoyed at that. Even though we’re stopping for her reason, not for mine, she gets annoyed anyway—not mad, she reminds me, just annoyed. She says we have to get to the hotel before 11 PM or there really isn’t any point in paying for one. If we get there any later we might as well just sleep in the car, which she knows I hate, because it gets cold and she forgot my blanket when we left this time. But I’m not mad at her for forgetting to bring my blanket, or even for blaming me for this stop when it was her idea in the first place—no—I’m not mad. I’m not even annoyed.
The rest stop is well lit. Mom gets out of the pickup and opens up a bag of Fritos and pulls out her pack of cigarettes from the middle console and stretches her arms out like someone who just won a race and says, Go piss—you’re old enough to do it on your own. I’ll be here. And I’m pretty sure she will be. I don’t think she’d leave me. She has always taken me when we leave places, when she looks back in the rearview and tells me, We’re never going back, I’m always okay with it because I’m always a part of it—a part of the leaving and a part of the never going back.
I’m not tall enough for the urinals so I go into the stall and I sit down to pee and then I can hear another couple voices come into the bathroom. One of them, the one that starts speaking, sounds like grandpa’s voice. Grandpa, the old cowboy who smoked Marlboros and watched Fox News and did backflips into the neighbor’s pool and then died one night, out of nowhere, like something that had been chasing him for years had finally caught up with him. And at his funeral I heard a lady that I didn’t recognize come up to Mom and say to her, in a hushed voice: He had his monsters. And that’s when I knew that grownups had them too.
The voice chuckles. Yeah, I saw her. Grumbling laughter between them both. The other voice chimes in, Why don’t you ask then? The sound of their zippers; the sound of their piss stream against porcelain; the sound of one of them sighing. Great idea, says the man with grandpa’s voice. I’ll just go right out and ask how much she costs. That should work. The sound of their zippers zipping back up. One after the other. You never know if you don’t try, says the second voice. You just gotta lay that charm on thick, man. I’ve seen you do it.
When I come out of the stall they’re both at the sink washing their hands even though there’s no soap (I know because I already checked to see if there was any but there wasn’t). One of the men nudges the other and glances at me. I don’t know which one is the one with grandpa’s voice because I couldn’t see them from inside the stall. They’re both sort of looking at me over their shoulders and I’m just standing there behind them, waiting for I’m not sure what. To wash my hands? I wasn’t planning on washing my hands. But I guess I am now.
Didn’t know we had company, says the one with grandpa’s voice, and now I can put a face to the voice; hairline running away from big gray eyes. Narrow shoulders. Khakis and a blue flannel.
I ask them who they were talking about.
They look at each other.
I ask if she was eating Fritos against a pickup. Maybe she was smoking a cigarette? Marlboro, I tell them, It would have been a Marlboro.
The man with grandpa’s voice turns off the sink and half kneels down, knees cracking at the movement. Alright, kid, he says. We’re sorry if that’s your mom. It was a joke, that’s all.
Sorry? I ask him. Sorry why?
They look at each other. The grandpa’s voice man shrugs at the other. He reaches his hand out and puts it on my shoulder and squeezes and then he stands back up and the two men leave. Sorry, kid, says Grandpa’s voice, without turning to face me, door framing his narrow shoulders against the rest stop lights outside.
So I leave too.
I walk back out to where Mom is waiting for me—and she is, she is still there waiting for me. She smiles at me and then she smiles at the two men walking towards their car and they look at me and then at Mom and she opens the door for me, Let’s go sweetie, she says, I was thinking of a story you might like.
And boy is it a good one. It’s the first story she’s told me in a while and it’s got everything, all the makings of a good story. The main character’s a boy like me, Mom tells me that, and he gets lost out in the woods behind a well lit rest stop as the sun is settling down behind fat clouds. But don’t worry, she says. The boy finds his way out. In the middle of the story he’s reunited with his family, his whole family, out in a meadow made of tall pines and they’re all happy together. They have big family dinners for Christmas and Thanksgiving and the boy plays catch with his dad. And the mom in this story and the dad in this story, they’re both just so in love. The three of them, they have it all. And then at the end of the story… well, to tell you the truth, I can’t say much about how the story ends. Because I wasn’t there for that part. I’d already fallen asleep. Conked out. The rattling of the pickup and the vent blowing warm air onto my cheeks did the trick. And Mom’s voice, well Mom’s voice was the nail in the coffin, the way it hung there in the pickup, edges soft like rest stop lights.
But I assume it ended nice, her story. The made up stuff usually does.
This story was originally published by the Columbia Journal on November 3rd, 2017. It can be found here: columbiajournal.org