Continued from last issue
*Mild profanity warning*
“Can I bring my basketball shoes, too? I'm tired of wearing Dad's old boots. They're not even broken in,” asks Mark. He's never packed his own suitcase and evidently, has never combed his own hair either.
“I'll pack your stuff. Go downstairs. Put your boots on. Gloves? Hat? All of it,” I tell him. He digs the crusty sleep out of his eyes and reaches down to pick up his pellet rifle. Rob would say something like, “It's time for him to become a man,” and I would reply, “Oh, because you set such a great example for that, don't you?” Mark slings it over his shoulder and kicks Linda's bedroom door, stomping his way down the hall.
Outside my bathroom window, down in the driveway, Linda finishes pulling the blue tarp over several garbage bags in the bed of my pick-up truck. My pick-up truck, from before the kids, and before Ron's house. It was my father's before that and he took care of the damned thing. Now, I take care of it and it takes care of us. Linda slams the tailgate closed and stares at her brother, lost in a storm of bootlaces.
“You look like a clown in those,” she tells him.
“It's not my fault. They were Dad's. He's a grown-up,” Mark replies. He looks down at his toes, still a solid inch from touching the steel-tip of the boot and pushes his finger down to feel for them.
“Yeah, well...” Linda continues. “Dad was a grown-up. Now he's a fucking clown.”
“Hey!” says Mark, his chest not fully committed to his defense of my ex-husband. It sounds more like a, “Hey, what's that over there?” or, “Hey, let's change the subject.” I'd rather not intervene.
Linda sits shotgun next to the shotgun and rubs her hands on her jeans, smelling them and silently gagging to herself.
“I told you to use the funnel,” I tell her. “Now we're all going to smell it the whole car ride.”
“I just can't really fathom trying Grandpa's old diesel. Is it even going to make it there? Is it going to ruin the truck, Mom? Mom?” she asks.
It'd better make it there. We have to leave. The indefinite torture of waking up to Mr. Roberts across the street, every morning, in his bathrobe like he's going to grab the paper and then forgot that the entire world went to shit–I would rather pull my own teeth out. He waves every time. I still wonder what he's been eating this whole time since he never comes down to FoodPlus. Life outside of this town, this county, has to be better than Mr. Roberts.
It turns out, just simply changing the oil and all of that doesn't mean shit up here in the Rust Belt. The truck doesn't fucking make it. A bang, a long whine, and then the sound of my alternator, completely calcified and rolling into the highway shoulder like some dented bowling ball. Mark wakes up in the back seat once the rumble of the engine cuts out. Yeah, Grandpa took real good care of it and blah blah blah. Linda has enough ammunition to taunt me for hours now until we figure out our next step. I look back at Mark, never having been in a break-down on the side of the road.
“Pennsylvania border?” he asks before yawning. He holds the pellet gun tight in one arm and rubs his eyes with the other hand. I take a good five minutes of pretending to them that I'm formulating a plan.
“You kids remember when that out-of-towner came in two months ago?” I ask them. “The one with the stupid re-furbished school bus?”
“The blue one? The one who got his wheels stolen?” Linda chimes in. “They didn't even leave it on cinder blocks for the poor guy. No gun. No nothing. Sucker,” she finishes. “Trish and I felt pretty bad–but we couldn't stop laughing. They walked all the way back out of town.”
I look in the rear-view at a big, fat passenger van cresting the hill behind us. I've never stuck up anybody in my life, much less contemplated how I would go about it. I hope they're considerate and realize I have kids. Ugh. That sounds so stupid.
“Well,” I say to Linda, holding my hand out at her side of the center console. “Let's see it.”
Linda slides the action back, safety-on, and hands me the shotgun. I eye the empty breach like I'm confirming what type of batteries it takes. Linda pulls her fanny-pack around to the front and hands me the double-A sized shells, one at a time. She shakes one of them up to her ear, a salt or a pepper that might need refilling. The tiny pellets inside, meant to spread out and hit a bird, sound like someone in Ricky Ricardo's band about to start up the maracas.
“Mom!? You can't do that. You're not a criminal,” Mark adds. Linda reaches around behind her and punches him in the thigh.
“There's no such thing as criminals anymore, Dummy,” she yells. “Who knows who this wacko could be. Besides, Mom's bad-ass and she can do whatever the fuck she wants.” Looking again in the rear-view, squinting and focusing, she giggles. “It looks like one of those big, crazy, church-people vans that go on field trips or whatever,” she says.
“Don't say fuck in front of your brother, please. Wait, the ones that go on field trips?” I ask. I look over at her, her eyes locked on to the approaching vehicle. She looks brave–braver than me. She's not like her father either, I decide. I used to think that sometimes she undermines me in the same snakish ways I remember from Ron. She's just living–surviving. I don't want the kids getting into this kind of shit, this kind of survival. No matter how I feel, I look into Linda's eyes and I see someone forced to be an adult and a girl who still needs to find adventure in this world.
From that perspective, I take it back. Aside from Linda, Mark is reminding me a lot of his absent excuse of a father. He looks worried, more appreciative of shooting ducks and pigeons than seeing his mother get into it over a new vehicle and some T.P., trying to feed her family.
“Mark, it's gonna be fine,” I smile. “Go crawl under the tarp and grab a twenty-four-pack before they see the rest of it. We'll see what they say.”
“Well if they can't appreciate a nice stack of cold, hard paper–maybe they like breathing out of the back of their head instead,” says Linda taking the plastic-wrapped bundle from her brother. “I'll get out first–show them the T.P.” Her door's already open and she plants her right foot to stand up and her head turns back to watch the van approach.
“Absolutely not, Linda. Give it to me–now!” I yell at her. She already has the seat belt unbuckled and the best I can do is rip off a piece of plastic from the corner of the package. It's the exact moment I realize I'm no longer in control of the situation, and that this is all just a sick joke. I think about the mini-van in front of our house and shredded, toilet paper-confetti raining down on that woman once the gunfire stopped. I chamber a shell in the shotgun and open my door.
“Stay here, Mark,” was what I wanted to say. Mark beat me to it.
“Mom–look! Cool dog!” he says, pushing his hands up against the window as the van rolls to a stop right next to us. He's right. The dog, the van, the nice guy Linda just seems to be talking to all of the sudden. It's mesmerizing. It's too good to be true. I snap out of it.
“Linda, get over here! Mark, shut up and stay in the truck!” I yell. The shotgun's pointed at the man's face, interjected by a rather delightful border collie in the passenger seat. He smiles and puts his hands up and the dog puts its ears up. For some reason, I'm more angry with this complete stranger than I've ever been with Ron. I think it's the stubble. Ron never could grow facial hair.
“Listen to me. I'm calling the shots now, okay!? Turn the van off!” I yell at him. He smiles again and turns down his Allman Brothers.
“Ma'am–before you leave me out to dry, I just wanted to say that my name's Jack and I'd be real happy to talk with you. The truth is, nothing fishy about it, this van doesn't like to start back up too well once you turn it off. I spend so long startin' this pain in the ass that once I got it goin'... You know. Things are just a little bit hard for me,” he says, slapping his lap hard, the sound unexpected. Not a spank or a hard pat. Something plastic. He doesn't even try to look at us, especially my seventeen-year-old daughter. I've seen enough T.P. change hands in enough bad ways to know this guy doesn't really care.
“He said he doesn't want the paper, Mom. Just asking how we're doing,” Linda tells me with her eyes wide-open, giving me violent eyebrows and looking up and down the body of the van. It felt like someone was luring my child away to Woodstock. I've never cramped her style this bad in her entire life, not even with a shotgun.