Mom drives with one hand on the wheel and the other holding her ribs. She says, “Brittany, don’t ever let a fucking man tell you what to do.” For the can’t-counth time, we are fleeing. She smokes and drives, eyes tight. I’m still in my footie pajamas, trying not to nod off. Indianapolis lights slide over us in waves, orange and black and orange, The Eagles on the radio. I chew on my knuckle skin and stare at my feet propped up on the dashboard. If I slouch in the seat and squint, it’s like I’m walking in space. There’s nothing out here, not even the ground. Not the car or the radio, not me.
Alien ship gas station lights tear my eyes open. I stretch and sit up. Outside, it could be close to dawn or it could just be the light reflecting on the parked semi-trailers. In the store window there’s a neon sign for lottery tickets. We crawl around the car, picking coins out of the floorboard grit and putting a mix of the two in our pockets.
When we walk inside the gas station, we smell the rolling taquitos and hot dogs and nacho cheese, the Subway. We find the payphone and she lets me put in the coins. My stomach pinches in and in and in as the phone rings. Rows of clean, packaged foods stretch out behind us. Leather hats, snow globes, shot glasses, VHS tapes of movies about white men with crow’s feet, the Dolly Parton discography on cassette.
My mom squeezes the phone and leans in close to the booth. “Please, Mama,” she says. I wander around the corner to the bathrooms and stand on the bright red weighing machine. It wants quarters and I don’t have them. In the back of the bathroom is a row of showers. I’ve never seen this in a public bathroom before. Under a stall in the back, the ground is wet. I see a pair of hairy man feet shifting, squeaking in flip-flops. I run back out to my mom.
We wait outside on the sidewalk for the Western Union to arrive. Tall men with checkered shirts and mustaches and dirty fingernails come and go. I watch their feet and try to sleuth out which one is the shower man. Something flutters near the lights and back into the dark. Mom says it’s probably bats. I crouch gargoyle style, ready to catch one. I want an animal to be charmed by me.
When the money comes, I get a bag of salt and vinegar chips and a tuna salad triangle sandwich. Mom eats an iced honey bun. She gives me the last bite.
We drive all day, singing along with Alanis Morissette and speaking to each other in Pig-Latin. She lets me pretend to read the map from the gas station. I run a finger along the lines to towns inconceivably far away. Waffle Houses and strip malls give way to open fields. We roll down the windows. We moo at cows. We treat ourselves with mozzarella sticks from White Castle. We are on an adventure.
At night, we park on the side of the road or in church parking lots or in a cluster of trees. Mom sings and I don’t know it yet, but someday it will be impossible to imagine her voice without a rasp. The cigarettes flare up orange in the dark, brighter and brighter until they fade away. I lie on my side and watch them glow and die closer to her face every time so I see in flashes the round shape of her nose, the bristled reddish-brown hair, the scar on her chin. I fall asleep clutching her sleeve.
We don’t have enough money for mozzarella sticks anymore. I eat the last of my stash from the passenger door cigarette holder in the back seat. It’s not as good cold. We keep driving. I don’t know where. Sometimes I wonder if we’re going anywhere at all. I don’t really care, as long as we’re in the same car. Outside, I imagine someone running alongside the car. They dodge road signs and leap over dividers. I cheer them on in my head with a chant that goes, I’m hungry, hungry, hungry, hungry, hungry, hungry.
* * *
The man lives in a second floor apartment. He wears corduroy pants and doesn’t seem to notice I’m there. Mom tells me to wait on the couch, so I do.
There’s a poster hung up on the pine-paneled wall of a million eyeballs spiraling to one big eye in the center where I swear I see an image of myself in the pupil. I stare into it and imagine a little girl riding a luck dragon, talking to animals, eating with her bare hands from a long table piled with food.
Mom shakes my shoulder. She’s smiling and she smells like heat. It’s time to go. Corduroy pants asks me if I like the poster. He tells me I can have it. We roll it up and put it in the back seat. I use it as a telescope to watch out the car window. We go to the movies that night and eat at a buffet.
When it gets cold, we find some blankets and start sleeping in a pile in the back seat. Mom puts me in two or three shirts and holds me like I imagine koalas hold each other. She calls me papoose and pretends to scream, wounded when I touch her with cold feet. We’re cave women. We talk cave talk in low voices and pretend we’re floating on Titanic wreckage. Some nights, when mom falls asleep first, I roll over and over, spreading body heat to one side and then the next. I touch her face with the very tippy tips of my fingers. When she’s asleep, the world gets muted and strange. I climb out of the cocoon and stare out into the dark for dangers.
* * *
Grandma and Grandpa are always happy to see us. They live in a big, black mansion where we have to walk sideways to get around. On every side, in every room, there are file folders stuffed full of papers, couches and dressers and chairs all imported from France, porcelain dolls, newspapers, books, sewing material, toys, chainsaws, weed whackers, dishes, food wrappers, lock boxes without keys, lock boxes with keys, objects that don’t make sense to me but still take up space. I tunnel through it. I hide in the filth, and I watch my grandfather’s duct taped shoes as he paces back and forth and screams into one of their two landline phones. A lifetime of sandblasting and living in West Virginia has left him incapable of talking in an inside voice. He’s a preacher, and everything he says, he says preacherly.
My grandmother walks on one leg and drags the other behind her wherever she goes. Her cane is silver with a black handle. I learn that I can use it to pretend I’m a funny dancer. She gives me a lice treatment and makes me oatmeal and lets me look at the funnies from the newspaper. Sometimes I catch her with her eyes closed, mumbling to herself. She says she’s talking to Jesus. When I ask who Jesus is, she covers her face. She tells me I have to wear dresses now and I can’t watch TV or talk about The Simpsons. This all seems excessive to me, but I change my clothes and go to church where people ask if I’m adopted and my grandma says, “No, she’s a rape baby.”
My favorite parts of going to church are when the people run really fast around the pews during praise, and when we go to McDonald’s after. I don’t like talking to Jesus before I can eat my food, but I do it anyway because if I don’t I’ll go to hell where they probably don’t have McFlurries. I also don’t like McNuggets, but I don’t want to hurt grandma’s feelings, so I eat most of them and hide the rest in my pockets.
At church, when the running and the yelling is over, they play the slow music and everyone stretches their arms up like begging and thanking at the same time. Grandma tells me they’re connecting with the Holy Spirit. She tells me you can’t feel it if you’re too embarrassed to give yourself all the way over to God. I lift my hands up and squeeze my eyes shut, and I think as clearly as I can, “I feel silly, but I’m really trying. Please take care of us.” I expect some kind of voice or wholeness, but it doesn’t come. Mostly, I just feel like a mouse under a bunch of stomping feet.
Mom comes to church sometimes too. She’s the only one with short hair. One day, she goes up to the steps of the stage and prays with everyone else. She’s one of about five people weeping with their faces to the ground. The preacher puts a hand on her back and starts talking into the microphone in a language I don’t know. Grandma says he’s speaking in tongues. More people touch mom and pray, eyes closed, hands up, shouting. Mom is convulsing, twisting around like a snake getting killed. I think maybe she needs my help, but Grandma tells me not to get too close. She says demons might jump onto me. When Mom comes back to her seat, she’s smiling and sniffling. She’s right beside me, but I feel like I can’t touch her. They play a slow song with lots of bass drum. It beats inside my chest so hard I worry it might throw my heart off.
We don’t drive anymore. Grandma takes us where we need to go. In her car, we go a little under the speed limit and the only music is gospel. When we’re at home, Mom and I spend time lying in bed and talking about stories I’ve made up. She doesn’t cuss as much, and when she does, she follows it with, “Sorry, sorry. God please forgive me.” If I try to joke our usual jokes, I get in trouble. I say, “Mom, do you think Sister Shumacher has extra boobs under her hair?” and she tells me to pray for forgiveness. I say, “Mom, let’s take the car when grandma is asleep and get some cheese sticks.” She tells me Thou Shalt Not Steal, and we don’t have a White Castle in town anyway, but if I pray maybe we’ll get one. I say, “Mom, how big is space?” and she tells me that only God knows, maybe I should pray and ask him. Sometimes it feels like we spend so much time praying and saying thank you for giving me life that we never get to live.
This is where we live now. We’re two holy women in robes, with our heads down. We live in a house with three floors. We eat plenty of food and I learn how to read. I learn how to read moods. I learn that when Grandpa is in a room, it can go one of two ways. He can call me over to sit on his lap and eat slices of pepper jack cheese off of his knife or give me a dollar, or he can scream for my grandmother to get me out of the room. Someone get me out of the room. Someone bring him the phone, make him some food, open this door right now or he’ll tear it down.
* * *
One day, my mom is gone. I read a book, play outside, make a bonnet out of leaves and grass for the dog. She’s still not back when it gets dark, so I wait on the porch, then inside. Grandma and Grandpa go to sleep, but I walk back and forth between the front and back doors all night, looking out the windows at the highway. My throat hurts and I’m tired, but I want to be there when she gets home. I stand beside my grandparents’ bed, and consider waking them up, but I don’t. Instead, I take the phone from their nightstand and crawl under the bed. I turn it on occasionally as if someone might be on the other line who could tell me what to do.
The next day, I sit with Grandma on the couch while she reads the Bible. I’ve asked her already when my mom will be back. We don’t know. I’ve searched the house for clues, checked the phones for missed calls. The morning goes away and then the day goes away. We eat and read, shift and sigh. Grandma reads to me from the book of Job. She says that everything that hurts us is a test. Outside, a car passes on the highway. I try to ask again when my mom is coming home, but it doesn’t come out. Instead, I put my head down on Grandma’s bad leg and cry. She puts a hand on my shoulder the way you do when you can’t help someone.
I don’t know how to sleep alone. I’ve always had someone in the room, or car, usually right next to me. By myself, the bed’s too big. The doorway too dark. The silence too heavy. Late at night, when I can’t go to sleep, I make myself brave and roam the house. Under the piles of things, under my grandparents’ bed, on top of the dining room table, on the third floor where I’m not allowed. I go outside and run to the end of the driveway, imagining my mom pulling up to find me. I sneak through the woods and dare anything to get me. Nothing does. Back in the house, I rifle through the piles and pick out books and a flashlight to keep me company when everyone else is asleep.
* * *
When mom comes back, I have finished the whole box of books at least three times. My hair has grown out a little bit and I have a child fortune in my money box. Grandma and I are having a tea party with the huge white hats, and fine dollar store porcelain sets. When I hear the door open and my mom’s voice, I run so fast my hat falls off.
There she is, back in pants, with makeup on. Not a trace of Jesus left. I jump into her arms. She holds me like a life vest, so I understand that she’s missed me and she loves me. Grandma hovers in the doorway asking questions as we pack my clothes. I don’t hear any of it. I buzz as we walk outside. I’m so excited to be back on the road. I jump halfway down the stairs and then run back up to walk with mom.
In the driveway is a car. Dad’s behind the wheel. He hangs an arm out the window, lazy and strong. The skin on his elbow is so dry it’s grey. I know by now that he’s not really my father and I’m not really his daughter, but that’s how we know each other. Behind us, Grandma waits at the door. In just a few years, she won’t be able to make it up and down the stairs, but right now she has come down to watch me leave. Her hair, usually up in a neat nest, is falling down. Looking back at her and the big black house with the white horses on the front, I think maybe I don’t want to leave heaven. Mom puts me in the back seat with my things and closes the door. I watch Grandma shrink through the rear window. Dad says, “Stop crying. Aren’t you happy to see us?”
I didn’t know I was crying. I didn’t know I wasn’t happy.
* * *
We have a house for a while where there’s no electricity or water. When there are people outside, we have to be quiet. In the mornings, we leave through the back door and drive to Dad’s CB shop. It’s a silver truck filled with shelves and shelves of radios. I sit in the front and pretend to be a trucker, and all day people come in and leave, and they hardly ever take a radio. After we stop having a house, we go back sleeping in the car. The trash bags with our clothes in them become my bed. I punch and knead them until I have a perfect nest of plush plastic. Outside, I see people moving in the dark. Mom says, “It could be worse. We could be out there.”
I don’t like motel beds as much as the trash bag nests, but I do like the TVs. I watch as much as I can, trying to make up for all of the time I couldn’t. I open all the cabinets and check under the beds, and swim until my eyes and legs and brain sting. I get a thrill from pushing the Bible in the drawer to the very back where we don’t have to see it. When we sneak out in the morning, I like to pretend we’re robbers or outlaws.
The outlaw business must be doing well because we get an apartment. It’s a second floor apartment with a possum living under the sink, and I have my own room. I don’t have a bed, but they build me a cardboard fort and give me a box of toys. My favorites are a pad of paper and box of crayons. I fill up the whole thing with pictures of animals, and Grandpa and Grandma, and Mom and Dad. There are some pictures that they tear out of my book and tell me not to draw. They say that drawings like that get you taken away.
Mom picks her face in the mirror. It’s something she’s started doing all the time. I watch her pinch and pull little bits of her face until the skin comes away in places. I don’t see anything there, but she must. She slaps herself in her sleep. Something wants out and she’s trying to help it.
We’re not hungry in this apartment. We eat pizza and Chinese and crunch bars that we keep in the freezer. We even start making big meals at home. Pasta and cooked vegetables. Mom has reusable bags that she takes with her to the grocery store. I beg her to take me with her. When she leaves, I throw fits even though I know everyone hates children who throw fits. I latch onto her legs, grasp her shirt in my fists, and I never say, “Please don’t leave me here with him.” And when she leaves, he leads me into the bedroom where the walls are white and the ceiling is white and the blankets are white.
* * *
When I’m 19, I will be lying on a white couch with a white boy who I love. I will love him so much that I’ll tell him everything. I’ll love him so much that I’ll write almost all of my poetry about him and sleep with him and forgive him every time he cheats on me. I will never scream back at him, and when he shoves me, I won’t call it violence. I never call anything he does violence.
This boy will pull me off the couch and kiss me on the neck. I’ll know it won’t make a difference, but I’ll say, “I’m kind of sore from riding my bike.” I’ll be so careful not to say no, not to hurt his feelings. He won’t listen. He’ll bury his face in my neck and will not notice that he’s crushing my ribs against the frame of the white couch. I’ll turn my head and see his pet bird watching us through one bead eye, talon gripping the bars of her cage for a better view. White cage. I won’t be an adventurer or a cave woman or a space walker. I will be rug burnt.
On the drive to work, I’ll hold my ribs and I’ll remember, “Brittany, don’t ever let a fucking man tell you what to do.” I won’t understand it yet, but it will never be that simple. It will feel like I’m failing in my lukewarm attempts at strength.
I will want my mom. Especially in these moments when I drive by myself, I will miss her. She will still be alive, kind of. Sometimes it will seem impossible that we survived, that we made it out by the skin of her face. But she will go holy again. On the phone, she’ll tell me about all of the ways the capital-L Lord has blessed her lately; How she has been healed and broken and healed, all miracles. When she asks me about my life, I will not talk to her about what the bird saw or what she never saw. God is talking so loudly, I don’t know if she would even hear.