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An Object At Rest
By Sheree Shatsky
My mother grips the wheel at ten and two, her back ramrod straight as if maintaining good posture could somehow help keep the tires from flying off the car.
“It’s the alignment,” she yells at me over the hot air blasting through the wide-open windows. “I’ll have Sears take a look when we get where we’re going."
My entire body nods in shaky agreement and I try to reach a comfortable stasis by pressing my feet against the floorboard while leaning back into the headrest, my hands pushing down into the seat for support. I catch my reflection in the mirror attached to the sun visor and think how much I resemble a week old hot dog, dressed in a wrinkled red tee thrown over a pair of old grey sweats rolled to the knee. Off behind my left ear, I watch the largest laundry basket we own jitter across the back seat in quick clipped beat. No time to pack, my mother said early this morning, pulling the dirty laundry from the linen closet. We’ll wash what we need when we need it and tossed in a jug of detergent for good measure. We rattle down the road south and she promises me the ride will smooth out once we hit the interstate.
The cows in the pasture stop jumping outside my window when we exit off the on ramp at seventy. I curl back into myself, steady as ever and study my mother as she ties her hair back into a messy knot, steering the car with one knee. I watch the needle creep up toward eighty. “Told you,” she says, hands back at ten and two. “The faster we go, the smoother the ride. “She glances at the side mirror and back over her shoulder checking for blind spots and moves into the center lane. “Freedom!” she yells out the window, holding face with the sun she loves so. Pulling her attention back ahead, she reassumes her elegant posture as lovely as peacock retracting its regal display.
I unzip my backpack and pull out my science book. I’ve been homeschooled the last couple of years to better align my real world education with what the public school calls a formal education as declared by my mother in her Letter of Intent to Home School. I meet with a group of other homeschooled kids every month for what the other parents call socialization, but my mother--who prefers to introduce me to real people through her provision of impromptu field trips--uses the meetings to wear a new outfit with her best heels and produce some sort of unusual snack (usually of the vegetarian sort) to work as an ice breaker stimulus to initiate higher order thinking, because according to her, God knows, within the drab realm of their lives, what most home school parents really could use was a good stiff drink.
“Excellent use of time,” my mother says, flicking a glance at the open book on my lap. “Newton?” I nod as she turns her eyes back to the highway. She knows a little bit about everything and feigns expertise well, a quality found charming by most who engage her in conversation. “I imagine sometimes that Steve Jobs might have been the reincarnation of Sir Isaac, with the apple so front and center in their respective life stories,” she offers, as if reading my thoughts. I scratch a mental note to keep an eye out for who next pairs with an apple in a big way.
The scenery resumes hopping as the traffic slows to a crawl. My mother rests her foot steady on the accelerator and revs the engine ever so slightly, the poor man’s means of quelling rattles emerging somewhere within the undercarriage of a car in dire need of repair but far too old to put money into it. “Something’s going on up ahead,” she says. I shut the book closed on Newton and watch out the window as we stop and go, stop and go.
We limp along in partnered commiseration when a football bounces off the windshield. My mother slams the car into neutral and promptly stalls, but she yanks up the parking brake as a matter of practice and throws open the door to grab the ball before it wobbles beneath the eighteen wheeler dead stopped to her left. “Stay in the car,” she tells me and turns to greet the boy in pursuit of the missed pass with her best public school sneer. “This yours?” she asks.
I unstrap my seat belt and pull myself to perch through the open window. As far as I can see ahead, traffic has come to a complete halt. People stretch against their vehicles while others engage in conversation with those they will never again cross paths. A few car doors ahead, I see two teenage boys watch what must be their several years younger brother confront the full length of my mother’s best posture.
“I said, is this yours?” The boy looks back at his brothers, then back at this elegant woman, cool and crisp without a smidgen of sweat marring her demeanor.
“Yes,” he says, reaching for the ball.
She tosses the ball inside the car. “Yes, what?”
I’d witnessed this side of my mother when focused on comeuppance. It’s not so much she was big on manners, in fact, exactly the opposite, as she believes both manners and religion are tools of feigned grandiosity utilized by simple minded persons pretending to be something beyond their life station, much like her own parents with whom she had distanced herself before I was born. Yet, ingrained habits have a way of reemerging under duress and in such situations, my mother found herself not so different from the mere mortals she scoffs.
The boy I judge to be around eight, registers vacant beneath his confused eyes, not a clue of how best to respond. A touch of breeze sifts through the visible oily emissions of trapped exhaust and extinguishes the standoff. “Ma’am,” my mother says. “Yes. Ma’am.”
The boy notices me sitting through the window and I do my best to mentally will him to say the words. “Yes, ma’am,” he repeats. He looks sideways at nothing in particular as if in contemplation of his venture forth and decides to take the trip. “Can I have my football back?” As if in after thought, adds, “Please?”
Thankfully, she did not choose the “can versus may” argument and goes easy on the boy. “That sir, is more like it. Take away from our chance exchange amid this stalled inferno that graciousness is not a lost art.” The boy looks at his waiting brothers and nods his head with vigor as if to say, hang on, but as I knew from previous perches, my mother was not yet finished.
Pulling the ball from the front seat, she asks, “Tell me your name.” Again, I will him to comply. Go ahead. Just tell her.
“Edmond. My name is Edmond Brown.”
“Well, Edmond Brown. Before I give you this ball back, tell me why your parents permit you to play football in the middle of an interstate highway?”
With that, Edmond of the Interstate brightens. “Up ahead,” he points, “there’s a horse lying dead in the middle of the road. ”
She considers his report and follows up. “And you know this how?”
“My dad has a old CB hook-up in the car and the truckers are saying, it’ll be buried right where it fell.” He looks at me and says, “Somebody said it’s a race horse.”
“Quite the story,” my mother says, handing him the ball. He makes the grab and runs the white highway line back the way he came. “Manners are wasted on the young,” she says, shaking her head.
She watches him flee and we stay put for a bit, she leaning against the hood of the car engaged in conversation with the next door trucker stepped out to the street for a smoke, me perched through the window, minding her business. Car doors ripple slam shut close and she waves off the trucker’s business card, folding herself back behind the steering wheel. “Get on inside, girly,” she says, pushing in the clutch. The car coughs alive and struggles toward the point of logjam, a fast lane staked off by streaming orange traffic cones.
Vehicles edge in toward the mainstream every which way, whether given a courtesy go ahead or not. The truck driver hoots the horn at my mother to let him in, but she pretends not to hear, continuing her inch along the line of orange. Once past the merge, the traffic evens and rolls us forward to a birds-eye view of a horse trailer, two state troopers and a backhoe. A white-sheeted mountain lies half-in, half-out of the median. I give the laundry basket a shove and climb into the back seat for a better look. FREEDOM FARMS is embroidered in large block letters across the drape. As we rubber neck by, my mother says, “Let’s get going before the going gets us.”
The grill of the tractor-trailer looms giant behind us and I’m no sooner back in the front when the refused trucker is up on our car in full tailgate. He lays on his horn and throws on the bright headlights. “Commoner,” my mother says, flipping up the rear view mirror in the simplest of protests. He cuts into the passing lane and pulls up alongside our excuse for transportation, blaring his horn. “Eyes straight ahead are invulnerable to distractions,” she says as the truck edges ever so closer to the highway line dividing us. I look towards wherever we are bound and assume the hot dog position.
The football hits the hood of our car and projectiles off, slamming against the windshield of the big rig. The trucker swerves into the breakdown lane and skids the guardrail, shrieking metal on metal. Drivers give way to the right and my mother seizes the opening, breaking the car into full cantor.
“Glorious!” she proclaims, planting a quick smooch at ten and two. “This old girl has a few miles left in her!” Her single visible casualty is a wayward strand of loose hair she tucks back behind one ear with a slip of her finger. I remember to breathe and watch out the window in search of drivers with lesser posture.
A car length ahead, I see Edmond seated in the rear-facing seat of the family station wagon. He sees us and hangs out the lowered back window in full stretch, both hands extended over his head. “Touchdown, ma’am!” he yells as we pass by, his cheeks flushed apple red.
“Indeed,” my mother says with a sniff, pulling her shoulders straight back as far as the seat will allow. “Another soul saved along the road to our salvation.”