In the still of night, I sneak into Dad’s Chevy Bel-Air. Slide into the front seat, the seat that was Mom’s. A seat that Dad has proclaimed will remain empty.
It still smells of Mom’s Chanel No. 5, the Chesterfields she smoked copiously, and something acrid. Whiskey, possibly. A couple times, I saw her just swigging away at night. A glass raised, raised, but seemingly never lowered.
I sit straight up, in Mom’s position, hands on my lap. A seat, a little space for my legs, and nothing more. Dad’s words to Mom rise to my mind. Straight, Penelope, sit straight. You’re Herman Botkin’s wife, for Chrissakes. You’d expect more from the front seat, to be honest. I always thought of it as something mystical. My older sister Nan and I always tried to fight over it, shoving, pushing, and laughing with glee.
“I’m the king,” I’d yell. “Actually no, make that the tsar. So I should get the front.”
“You look like a beaver, Mister Buckteeth,” Nan would yell back, but smiling. “I’m the princess and a princess always gets the front seat. Besides, you know they shoot tsars, right?”
“They shoot princesses too.”
“Enough,” Mom would say, words as sharp as the edge of one of her cocktail glasses. “It’s a seat. It’s not worth fighting over.”
Of course, Mom always said she’d rather be at the helm than this fucking little seat, her words sliding from her like a flood. I never knew what it meant, not the fuck part, that is. I’d heard that word when Mom and Dad fought, friends taught it to me in the secrecy of alleyways and bedrooms, away from fedora-clad fathers. But I didn’t know what it meant to be at the helm, not the way Mom meant it. Dad told me to pay it no mind. She’s just depressed, his words tumbling with ease. She’ll be all right, old sport. She’s a wonderful mother. Don’t forget that.
There’s something constraining about this little space. I lean back, right into what would be my sister Nan’s seat and mine. A sea of bodies colliding, arms and heads. But it’s Dad’s car and everyone occupies, I mean occupied Dad’s delegated places in what he called “the pantheon.” Now, I lean forward, forward, constrained by space, by a window. Mom always leaned forward, even when Dad told her it was unbecoming. I imagine Mom on all our trips looking, looking, but only able to watch life moving around us, laughter, other people in Chevys and Oldsmobiles, radios rising, people building highways and businesses and grabbing the sickly little Soviets by the sickle, as Dad would put it. Sometimes, window open, she’d just lean out, unclench her fists, reach into the vast expanse of world.
I mime myself taking a drink. Mom always swigged whiskey. Said little sips didn’t do it, said you had to have something a little bitter but all your own with each swig.
I wish I were drunk. Really drunk. Her laughter rises, cracked.
One of the last things she confessed to Nan and me was she loved Elvis because he was raw, not something packaged and pleasant. We were having one of her “fireside chats” in my bedroom, as we did every night. Up until last month.
“He knows heartbreak,” she’d said, pulling my curtains shut. “Isn’t that something? Heartbreak Hotel. A hotel for the lonesome people in the world. I wonder if he’s got a place for a life-long hausfrau.”
“We love you,” I’d said, because I didn’t know what else to say. Nan nodded in agreement.
Mom smiled, a smile as crumpled as a dollar bill. She’d smelled like her Chesterfields and sweat, something a little soothing and almost desperate at the same time.
“Love,” she said. “I wish it were enough. But I love you both. Very, very much. Please know that.”
She’d kissed me, long and hard, and then Nan. She rose and walked out, a shadow closing a door, leaving Nan and me among the darkness, a thousand questions rising into the night, which we’d tried to assemble like a jigsaw puzzle. What did she mean? What was going to happen?
And then it happened anyway. No note. Just a disappearance, an empty place at the dinner table, an empty place in the car. An empty hug, an empty goodnight. An empty chair at parent-teacher conferences and a sea of questions and lies, told with desperation. She’s on a trip, she’s in Paris, in London, words that bounced off neighbors with starched, knowing smiles. Once Nan and I tried to outdo each other with stories of her whereabouts. She’s in the CIA, ran off with Cary Grant, a jazz singer, an actress. But we ran out fast.
I slide out of the seat, piece by piece, into a night growing very cold and wide. A half-moon darts out from a cloud and disappears again. What do I know? Nothing. What can I guess? Somewhere Mom is at the helm of another vehicle in another town. That much seems certain. Maybe it’s a Packard, one of Mom’s favorites. Or maybe it’s a Chevy just like this one. A Chevy with a driver’s seat and empty space around it. Maybe she’s in a city. San Francisco? Denver? Chicago? I imagine her picking up speed, swinging another wheel, faster, faster, moving forward, perhaps thinking of me and Nan. Perhaps she is thinking of what to write, an explanation. Perhaps she is tearing up the letter because you can’t really capture what you’ve done on paper, explanations that will never see our eyes, drifting into the sky. Perhaps you can’t explain a thing, not now, not tomorrow. Perhaps she’s thinking of a way to come back and swoop Nan and me away. A surprise. Or perhaps she’s just swinging the wheel, faster, faster, moving forward, forward, forward, the dial expanding before her, but never, never back.
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