Slice of Life 9:
As I pull up to the house in my burgundy Hyundai Elantra, gallant in its 2012 freshness…
My memory is jolted.
Back to a time in which a third, reverse positioned seat in a blue station wagon stirred excitement with its ingenuity and ability to be transformed to a flat space in which we could stretch our bodies out amid the cooler, scattered pillows, and the rejected suit cases that could not fit into the “Big Mac.” The Big Mac which sat like a crown, perched like royalty, or perhaps more appropriately like a kind gentleman’s cap, announcing The Blake’s presence and arrival into unmarked territory. The Blue Battle Wagon served to transport us to basketball practice, wrestling tournaments, Dominick’s, Sunday church …but the most memorable rides, the rides that still serve on occasion to coast through the transcendental roads of my memory, are the ones in which all 8 of us journeyed in the confines of the wagon, packed like sardines, packed and strewn throughout like pixie sticks. Legs overlapping, arms entangled, pillows shared by two heads striving for the same comfort within the constriction of the Chevrolet… Bags of cherries sat saturated in the double sized cooler, the cooler which with every stop and slide, abused the poor child whom naively decided to inhabit the rear space.
South Dakota, North Dakota, Michigan, South Carolina, with plenty of excursions to Florida in between, sweet Battle Wagon Blue, was faithful.
It was the summer of ’91 that Old Blue had its final run. We always left in the early morning before dawn. Having the car packed the night before; we would wearily file into the wagon, an excited spark hung in the air, despite the drowsiness. That initial launch off Campbell Ave. consistently held the same anticipation. Soon after, silence would succumb. The only sound would be the engine and the whirl of the passing pavement.
With my parents up front, the kids would operate in intervals of sleep, eat, interact, or drift off in thought individually, gaze fixed out a window. My parents would take turns driving, swapping seats every 5-6 hours.
This particular time, on Battle Blue’s last run, my parents decided to drive straight through. My siblings and I slept most of the day away. After ten hours or so, the air would grow stale. A distinct smell would methodically envelope the interior of the Battle Wagon, a distict smell-not unlike rotten cantaloupe. We would obligatorily accept the miserable smells and confinement- knowing it was means to an end. An end that meant Orlando, Florida. So on we slept. And slept.
I don’t recall what time it was, because in that time, chronological time did not exist. We operated on miles. On state boundaries. We were in Georgia somewhere. It was pitch black outside and I awoke to silence as we rolled into a florescent reservoir.
“Where are we?”
“We’re at a rest stop. Your father and I need to sleep. Just close your eyes. We’ll be there in the morning.”
Close my eyes? They had been closed for the past 3-4 hours. Surrendering, I decided to at least try. Only surprisingly, my mom came into the back seat. She stretched out onto the seat with my baby brother, and I was instructed that the luxurious floor of the back seat was all mine. Fran and Dad had the front. Ray was given the back. I attempted to settle into the given circumstances. I stared blankly into the blackness of the car. My gaze met the cloth lined interior roof. I memorized every stich and sag. The florescent light from the rest stop shone eerily through the windows.
Silence. Complete silence. The only sounds were the restless cries that echoed in my head. The muffled cry of crickets outside. Get me out of here. Twenty minutes. Forty minutes. An hour. The windows of the car began to steam, as if to serve as a visual reminder of my misery, collapsing in at every angle. The car stank of rotten fruit. I lay tangled at the base of the backseat, bodies overhead- sleeping- my dad’s obnoxious snore occasionally slicing the silence, tallying the many facets of my torturous state. I was sweating. Sticky. Smelly. Cantaloupe.
With a revolting push I burst through my confines. Sitting up with rupture and gasping for fresh air. My mom and brother lay motionless and tangled next to me on the seat. I peer over into the front. My Dad lay on his back, sprawled, mouth ajar, snoring with reckless abandon.
Something catches my eye. I squint in my incoherent state to read words that have been finger-drawn onto the steamed windshield. At first, it is hard to make out. The words seem to have been written some time ago, as the condensation has caused the letters to drip, leaving streams of tears, flowing from the letters.. the letters.. a plea.. that reads… H E L P M E…
“Fran???” I whisper into the darkness.
“Oh my God. Are you awake?” he responds in broken despair.
I search for his face.. Suddenly he emerges from underneath the steering wheel, peering at me through and over my Dad’s flailed limbs. Two eyes emerge and meet mine. The whites of his eyes expose the terror, the misery, the desperation…now grateful in their discovery of life. Grateful to have found camaraderie in the isolated misery.
We escaped into the night. Walking to the pop machines, we sat on benches, breathed in the Southern air, listening to the cars passing on the parallel highway. Rulers of the desolate domain, overlooking a world in slumber. We kept a vigilant eye on the Battle Wagon, waiting for movement. For two to three hours, Fran and I drifted under the flood of neon lights.. amid swarms of tiny knats, swatting at the mosquitoes that preyed upon our exposed skin. So happy.
Eventually, the rest of our family arose. We made our way back to the car. Onward South we drove. With fresh perspectives- renewed and rejuvenated with excitement.
As I step out of my Hyundai Elantra, I make a wish. I wish for this fresh 2012 Hyundai to smell of cantaloupe…To become a tool of torture.. a chamber of confinement. I wish for it to create and house moments that will ride and coast the roads of my son Michael’s memory, for a lifetime to come.
I hope and pray for this kind of sweet misery.