Sunday, June 2, 2019 • Essays
Fifty Hours in a Car with the Parents
Through a fortuitous set of circumstances, last week my parents and I drove from Missouri to New York to Florida and finally back to Missouri. 3,533 miles. 52 hours. In a car. My father. My mother. Me.
In the beginning it was good. The mornings I mostly slept away in the back seat, earphones drowning out any disturbances coming from the Front. My father drove quietly. My mother did her cross-stitch. But the serene ideal of quality time with family quickly deteriorated into something resembling one of those behavioral studies from the 60s—you know, where they lock an unwitting participant in a room with a goat and can of fermenting peaches to see what might happen.
Ever the co-dependent caretaker, my mother’s head was on a constant swivel. Soon I realized that any slightest hint I might be looking for something induced a great shuffling from the front seat and the urgent question, “What do you need?”
“Nothing, mom. Thanks, though.”
As I reached for a pen on the floor—”What do you need?”
“As I sent a message on my phone—”What do you need?”
Lifting a coffee cup—”What do you need?”
“A dollop of cream from a non-genetically altered Swiss heifer that wears leg stockings and only eats cherry blossoms. No?”
Breathing—”What do you need?”
She was eventually distracted by my father’s attempts to finally end us all in a blowing snowstorm in Ohio. “Gotta die sometime,” he said, my mother gripping the dash.
“What do you need?” I said.
For an hour in South Carolina my father kept repeating “Chicken and biscuits” to himself, like a mantra, while playing Christmas music on the radio. His holy utterances came to fruition when we finally stopped for lunch and he ate chicken and biscuits.
“Mmm, that was good,” he said, contently patting his belly, crawling back to the car. Two hours later, “Shrimp and grits. Shrimp and grits.”
Somewhere in northern Florida, hazy from seven hours of driving down the eastern seaboard, my father’s mind began to completely unravel. He began to babble nonsense:
“Oh my god, those guys are going fast. They must be going 55 miles-an-hour, no they ain’t. They must not have any roller dogs (?). Poor guy, feel sorry for him. No goosy-lips (??) on that car. Holy crap, Mom! What are you guys laughing at? I’m trying to carry on a conversation but it’s not going nowhere. Dog! Go lay down. Gotta tell the dog to lay down and she’ll stop barking at ya…”
There was no dog in the car.
Strange smells intermittently wafted through the vehicle, originating from my father’s direction. In Pennsylvania it smelled of bean enchiladas. In New York it smelled of pastrami and sauerkraut. In Georgie it smelled of kettle corn and sweet tea.
“God, that’s awful!” Mom said, putting down the windows in a panic.
Dad chortled, “Wasn’t me. Must have been the dog. Dog!”
Again, there was no dog.
We stopped several nights at hotels. One room, two beds, my mother having the unfortunate privilege of sleeping next to the furry beast that wandered about the room in underwear with gaping holes in the rear. More smells came. And sounds from the beast as it slept, like a bear, suffocating aboard a piano-filled ship on rough seas. I faced the wall and didn’t move.
This is what my father does. This is what I’ll become. I am horrified for those who will know me then.
Eventually the trip ended. I leapt joyfully from the car, twirling about with my arms toward the sky like the Sound of Music. I fell to the ground, tugged at the grass, and oh the freshness of the air and the silence of space! A single tear slipped down my face. It was beautiful.
I do love my parents.