The Ride of My Life (Unfinished)
Father driving our 1935 Pontiac, left arm out the window, cigar out of the side of his mouth. Every so often he’d nervously glance at my mother. “Look kids,” he said, moving the cigar to the other side of his mouth, all the while his eyes still checking his wife Rose out. “Look at that,” he pointed at the wide open sky, “That’s something you’d never see in Chicago.”
He knew she didn’t want to move. We all knew she didn’t want to move. She didn’t want to leave her first home. Flagstone exterior, kitchen big and roomy, a cabinet sink, piano in the basement and upstairs bedrooms with a nook at the top of the stairs where she’d read bedtime stories. But most of all she didn’t want the past nine months of father home most night to end.
I looked out, excited, but mad too. He was using us. Sometimes he had to. Miles of her stiff silence, knowing all she saw was a dusty road with nothing but Berma Shave signs.
I stuck my head out of the open window. I listened to the drone of another car on the road and imagined people on their way to a new place, like us, traveling father’s dream. It was 1942. Father, wanting to escape the draft, hitched a ride with Uncle Joe, a long distance trucker. Two weeks later a postcard arrived – “Dear Rose. Sell the house. Pack everything. This is the land of opportunity. Kiss the kids for me. Love Nick.”
Five days since we left Chicago. Five sunny days eating watermelon off the side of the road, spitting seeds in the dust and starry nights when we stopped at small motels with yellow and green neon blinking on and off like flashing fireflies lighting up the desolate stretch of highway. I couldn’t wait to stop.
Finally doors slammed like gunshots as the men got out. Father pushed his hat back on his head and looked around. “Looks like they got rooms?” His voice rose into a question. Uncle Jim agreed. He was number four of father’s brothers and was quick to please people.
“How much you pay,” grandfather asked in his broken English.
“Five, six bucks a night,” father replied, shuffling his feet, impatient to decide. “We’ll drive through the night tomorrow. Maybe make Arizonna.”
“Nick,” the kids are hungry,” my mother said, quietly out the window. She didn’t shout then. The shouting started later, when my father came home late most nights. But tonight, the way father walked over to the car window and quietly asked my mother, “you wanna stay here tonight?” felt good.
My brother Jimmy John cheered and shouted yes, while I only nodded my head. I worried about how the room would smell and wondered if I would have to sleep on a mattress on the floor or if my father would pay two dollars to get an extra cot in the room.
The night air was dry and warm and as my mother stepped out of the car, father stared. Her dress hardly wrinkled, flared out over her thinness. She was young and beautiful. Greta Garbo looks. I watched father watch her. His eyes bounced off her like sunlight bouncing off gold, and for just a moment, a half second really, I saw a slight smile light his face and I knew he saw her as beautiful.
“The best deal in town,” father read the motel sign aloud. “Looks pretty damn good don’t it Rose?”
“It’s fine, Nick.” Her voice tired.
He took the bag from her arm.
“Careful, Nick. I’ve got gram crackers and milk in there for the kids.”
He teased. “Where’s the macaroni?”
A tired sigh was all he got from her.
“You look like hell,” he murmured, shaking the bag, wanting to make the milk spill.
“Please, Nick. I’m tired and I’ve got to get these kids fed.” The two small lines in her forehead appeared, then, deepened. Suddenly, she pinched my arm. “Gina,” what did you do to your hair? Look at her Nick.”
“My head hurt,” I pleaded, looking at father for support, hoping to pit him against my mother.
“French braids should last a week,” she cried, looking at me accusingly.
I had the rubber bands off as we drove in the dark through Tulsa, Oklahoma. This was before my brother cut off one of my locks. Mamma mad like he had ruined me for life. Saturday nights she’d heat the curling iron on the stove and wind a chunk of my hair around it. The smell of hair burning , but when she slipped the iron out I had a Shirley Temple lock.
Finally, everyone was out of the cars. The men walked around Uncle Joe’s truck, tightening ropes holding our furniture. It was my Uncle Joe’s 1935 Ford Pick-Up with wooden slates on all sides, a big floor shift. Sometimes my mother had to drive the truck so one of the men could sleep. She’d strip the gears trying to get into second. “It’s a mean shift,” she’d cry and father would always yell, “Get the clutch down to the floor. You gotta get it to the floor.”
Walking up the path to the motel entrance a radio was playing and my Uncle Jim, carrying his accordion, began to sing with Louie Armstrong. “Give me a kiss on which to build a dream on.” He was on a two-week furlough from the navy. Everyone treated him with kindness, glad he was alive, glad he came to help drive. When his brother Mario, who got on everybody’s nerves he’d put the straps of the accordion round his shoulders and heft it up and play. It was my Uncle Johnny everyone picked on. Hair kinky, dark skin, full lips. He was my grandmother’s favorite, always by her side when I wasn’t there first. Uncle Mario called him a Nigger. I remember my cousin Lori and punching Jeanie Marzola in her chest because she had dark skin. We hated ourselves, but hated her more for reminding us we were too dark, too smelly, too loud, and grew vegetables in front of our houses instead of the back where there was only concrete alleys.
“Johnny, help Ma,” father snapped, hitting the back of his brother’s head.
Uncle Mario farted and ran in front of everyone. “I’ll check, see if they have a pool.”
“Don’t be a chitzone,” father yelled. “They see we like to swim right away they’ll charge us extra.”
Our feet crunched on the gravel path and the night carried our voices, the only thing that felt familiar. Open space all around, the air tasted dry, like dirt. In Chicago it was humid and the air tasted like steel.
My mother raised her eyebrows at the Mafiola kids who were always allowed to go barefoot. “Gina.” She said my name quick – sharp, making me jump to attention, always ready to please her. “Get your hair brush. It’s on the front seat of the car.”
In the small motel room I sat on the toilet seat, hair snarled, my mother swearing as she combed and pulled and tugged and jerked the comb through each knot, then, pulled tight, getting each little hair wrapped into the next, weaving them into braids. I knew better than to utter a sound.
“There, that’s better,” she said, looking happy and satisfied.
“Don’t take them out again young lady,” father warned loud, so my mother could hear, then, winked at me.
Teary eyed, I pouted. “Can I have a cot?”
“Waddya think Babe? Think we should get the kid a cot tonight?”
She called out from the bathroom, “Tell her to pick up that lip before I step on it.”
Father laughed, went into the bathroom and shut the door.
Waiting. I looked around. My brother sat on the double bed reading a Captain Marvel comic I was hoping he’d toss to me soon. I looked in the drawers of the small dresser. A ticket stub to a movie, a rusty safety pin and the bible was all I found. I liked the smell of the room, like perfume and cigarettes mashed together.
Father still in bathroom, murmuring, my mother’s soft laugh, the one she only used with Father.
I sat in the only chair. It was orange and had wooden arms and smelled like rotting fruit.
I stood up and stared at the picture of cactus on the wall.
My mother had lipstick on. “We’re going to get some food,” she said as they walked out of the bathroom. “Jimmy, watch your sister.”
It was me who always watched him. He hardly looked at me except when he was bored.