I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
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Later, everyone would agree it was the least likely time to encounter a deer. The two young guys in baseball caps who stopped to help us on the freeway said it. So did the highway patrolman who came to fill out the accident report after the two guys in baseball caps had gone to the next town and called for help.
The old man who came with the tow truck seemed equally perplexed. He removed his greasy cap and scratched his head, as did the manager of the body shop to which our car was eventually towed. Everyone agreed that a deer should not have been on that stretch of highway, during that time of day, at that time of year.
We’d left Bozeman before dawn, full of the coffee and pancakes my sister’s husband had risen early to make for us. I took the wheel in the semidarkness, glad to be done with the three-day visit. I imagined the sun barely kissing the flat eastern horizon of North Dakota, where we hoped to be by nightfall.
Montana was movie-beautiful that morning. By the time we reached Livingston, light had begun to fill in the horizon. We sped through the passes, flanked on either side by the giants of the road: the Gallatin Range spreading long and wide to the south, the huge blueness of the Big Belt Mountains to the north, and in the distance the sharp crag of Crazy Peak.
Beneath us snaked the Yellowstone River, crossing and recrossing the freeway, as if to escort us out of the state. At every mile marker, a view presented itself like a tourism postcard begging to be snapped. Montana was green and gorgeous that day. It was strutting around, ready for its close-up, and we were sick of it.
My father is sitting in the back seat, holding under his tongue the nitroglycerin pill that will quiet his racing heart. He has spent his life working the unspectacular farmland of central North Dakota, which looks as if it were laid out with a carpenter’s level. Something about the mountains makes him short of breath.
I’m in the driver’s seat with my right arm slung casually over the wheel, trying to assume the confident pose I’ve seen my brother Rick take on so naturally whenever he drives. I hum lightly under my breath and speak only in forced monosyllables, just as Rick would do if he were here. I stare straight ahead and drive, taking my eyes off the road only to watch my father in the rearview mirror.
This is the fourth trip I’ve made to Montana with my parents, so I know that his condition will correct itself as soon as these dramatic elevations give way to the mundane flatness of the central plains. Then he will lean back into the soft upholstery of the Oldsmobile, take a deep breath, and say, “At last, God’s country,” in a voice ringing with regret over having been lured away from the quiet splendor of North Dakota. If he had his way, he would never leave home.
In his old age, my father remains forever uninterested in places like Florida, Arizona, and Hawaii — locations that I’ve tried to convince him would be fabulous for his retirement. My efforts are partly selfish. In the United States, North Dakota boasts the coldest winters and some of the hottest summers. According to the National Tourism Bureau, it’s the least-visited state in the Union. In December, when I’m on Christmas break from the university where I teach, the last thing I want to do is get on the road and head north, north, and ever northward into more fierce snow and cold.
“For once,” I beg, “can’t someone I’m related to live in a hospitable climate?” But my pleas go unheeded by my father. Since retiring, he’s kept himself enormously busy with small but critical tasks, like checking the post-office box downtown at eight o’clock sharp every morning, just to make sure the postmaster is doing his job, and toodling out to the family acreage once a day to see how many farming mistakes my brother Rick might be making.
And he has other pressing engagements: the twice-a-day coffee appointments with all the other retired farmers in town, who spend their mornings and afternoons sitting in the corner cafe in their clean overalls, chewing on toothpicks, talking about the crops, and harassing the old waitress, who has never, in her entire career, received a tip from a single one of them. That done, my father returns home to his La-Z-Boy, where he naps sporadically, watches cable with the remote in his hand, and waits, like the Buddha, for the world to come to him.
It’s only when we, his moved-away daughters, shame him with news of our various children, weddings, graduations, and anniversaries that he is forced to visit us in the neighboring states where we’ve flown to. Once away from home, he’s determined not to be impressed by anything he sees. About Mount Rushmore he said, “So it’s a bunch of faces in a rock. We’ve got plenty of rocks at home.” Although he’s never visited the Grand Canyon, I can imagine his response to it: “A big hole? We drove two thousand miles to see a hole?” About Europe he would wave his hand in dismissal and say, “Aaah, everything is so old here.”
Every spring for the last four years, we’ve made this trip to Bozeman to visit my oldest sister. My parents are the tourists; I’m the driver. It’s a concession I’ve made in my thirties to compensate for the wildness of my teens and the intractability of my twenties. Each spring, when the school year is drawing to a close and my desk is scattered with unfinished drafts of poems, revisions of stories, and student portfolios to grade, I receive the first Montana inquiry.
“Of course, we could drive ourselves,” my mother will say to my answering machine in her polite, breathy voice. And soon after that I will call back, open my crammed calendar, and settle on a date for the trip. The day I turn in my final grades, I get on the road and drive the first 750 miles from Iowa to North Dakota. From there, we take my parents’ car and head west into big sky country. The first year we made the trip, my very nice husband came along, but now he knows all of us a lot better and can’t be convinced to come.
Once we’re on the road, I submit to my parents’ whims and routines: start out before sunup, mandatory pie stops in the late afternoon, pee breaks allowed only at locations preapproved by my mother. At first, it seems strange to hear my old name, Debbie, which no one else has considered calling me for twenty years. But I don’t try to correct them. My mother still refers to me as “the baby” when she introduces me to people, a habit I was never able to break her of, no matter how nasty and unbabylike I became. So I mind my own business and drive the car, drinking in as much of the sagebrush and rolling foothills as I can without putting us in the ditch.
Every year, no matter how well I prepare myself, I’m surprised by my first sight of the mountains. A born-and-bred flat-lander, I seem destined to be forever in awe of mountains. In central Dakota, we sometimes joke, the only hills are the offramps on the freeway. Once in the mountains, I try to convince my father of the beauty of the place.
“Look there, Dad,” I’ll say, pointing to the nearest eight-thousand-foot peak. “See how that one just pierces the clouds?”
He scans the horizon quietly, his nose turned up at the idea that this could be big sky country. (“You wanna see big sky? I’ll show you big sky.”) Soon my mother catches on and fills in the silence with small enthusiasms like “Isn’t that something?” or “Gee, I never noticed that before.”
After some time, my father will raise his hand and point his knobby middle finger at a mountain — not at the peak but at a small area at the base where someone has managed to squeeze in six rows of spring wheat.
“I see they got a few acres in there,” he’ll say, admiring the thin yellow stalks waving in the wind. This is the farmer’s view of the mountains: if you can’t run a plow over it, what the hell good is it? As we drive, the most-repeated phrase I hear from him is “What a waste.”
Meanwhile, my mother is in the passenger seat folding and refolding maps. She will do this until we get home. But what’s there to check? We’ve all made this trip several times, and it’s a straight shot from Bozeman to Bismarck — I-90 to I-94, then we’re home.
Still, she feels compelled to give us updates: Livingston, 100; Billings, 175. By her calculations, we will make lunch in Miles City at noon exactly. She loves the symmetry of this and reminds us every fifteen minutes that Miles City is the exact halfway point between Bozeman and home.
I know that when we arrive at Miles City we will eat at the same truck stop where we’ve lunched every time we’ve made this trip. I no longer take issue with this. One year, when I suggested to my mother that we try the 4Bs family restaurant on the other side of the overpass, she was thrown into such a frenzy that I’ve never mentioned it again.
My mother is trim and tight-lipped, with a curl-and-comb hairstyle that reminds me of the smooth, rounded shape of a football helmet. Most of the women in her town wear their hair this way, I suspect, because they all go to Connie, the local beautician. When I prompt my mother to try a cut more fitting to the shape of her face, she says, “This is just so easy.”
Style is not one of my mother’s priorities. Her life is driven by the twin purposes of precision and economy. A child of the Depression, she was raised to despise waste of any kind. In the spring and summer, she wears white and red pantsuits; in the winter and fall, navy blue and red. All the pieces in her closet are interchangeable, and she never buys anything that must be dry-cleaned.
She goes to bed late, gets up early, keeps a spotless house, and wrenches as much as she can out of each day. “I like to make things with my hands,” she will say, showing off the row of cabbages she’s grown, the batch of cookies she’s baked, the cotton blazer she’s sewn.
I am my mother’s most extravagant and reckless daughter. With a failed career as a rock musician (where I squandered my twenties), one bad marriage, and no children to recommend me, I have not registered very high on her Richter scale of achievement. Even now, in my late thirties, I can’t count on my career as a writer and a teacher to salvage me in her eyes.
Both she and my father are full of nervous inquiries about my work. For example, during the summer when I’m not teaching, they often quiz me about whether I am “on break” or “unemployed.” When I tell them that the summer is a good time for me to catch up on my research, they remain unconvinced. This seems like fuzzy logic to them. When I try to explain that my writing is my research, it comes out sounding like one of those nebulous excuses teenagers concoct when asked to account for a missing block of time: Yeah, the library. That’s right, I was at the library. My parents worry and wonder: how could I possibly have so much to write about?
They’re equally perplexed by my teaching load: how can I get by teaching only three days a week? Once, when I called home to tell them I’d been hired for a better teaching position and would now have to teach only two classes a semester, my father became silent for a time and then nervously asked, “Are you able to get in a forty-hour week, then?” I explained that, with my “research,” I worked well over forty hours a week, but he was still unsatisfied. Thinking I had strapped myself into yet another hopeless situation, he tried to be helpful, finally coming up with a solution: maybe I could ask them if they’d let me teach a few more classes.
Faced with this, I return to the policy of my youth: the less they know about my life, the better.
Still, it’s been lonely out here in the world without them. This spring, I am buoyed by the release of my first book of poetry — something solid to show for all my troubles — and by the word I’ve received from my second-oldest sister in Minnesota, who says that, in her opinion, my status in the family has been upgraded from outcast to rebel.
This sister went back to school in her late thirties to get a degree in nursing and has since diagnosed all of us. In our family we now have attention-deficit disorders, chronic thyroid problems, and congenital heart conditions where once we had only vague, paranoid feelings that something about us was terribly wrong.
My mother, for her part, has been pegged as a classic obsessive-compulsive personality. I consider this diagnosis now as I watch her page endlessly through the little black book she keeps with her when she travels. In this book she has jotted down vital details about every stretch of highway she has ever traveled. High on her list of things to note are low gas prices, good food stops, clean restrooms, and easy access to the freeway. In her book she has sketched aerial perspectives of all the on- and offramps she has ever taken. A department of transportation engineer couldn’t have done a finer job.
If an exit does not appear in my mother’s book, she is reluctant to take it. She means to avoid those roads that veer wildly to the north and never return you to the freeway, and those offramps that cloverleaf into endless circles, causing you to lose your bearings. I suspect she fears we might go so far afield as to end up in the French-speaking part of Canada, or in some bad neighborhood in Los Angeles, where we will be mugged or car-jacked and never find our way home again.
Watching her pore over the drawings and notes in her black book, I am reminded of my own book. All during this trip, I’ve waited for some indication that my parents have read my book of poems. Two months ago, I signed a copy, packed it into a padded envelope, and held my breath as I dropped it into the mail slot. That was the last I heard of it.
When I got to their house to pick them up for this trip, I looked around for my book. Would it be displayed on the coffee table, or maybe nestled in the magazine rack, dog-eared from heavy use? But it was nowhere in sight. I searched for and eventually found it on the bookshelf in my mother’s sewing room, wedged between the town-centennial book and the Betty Crocker recipes.
All week, my parents’ silence about the book has worried me. I’m beginning to wonder if they found the one nasty poem I wrote about my mother — the one that my friend calls my “teenage mother-hate poem.” It begins:
when I think of her
I think of silence
my mouth growing tight across my face
after she has told me
not to sing in the house.
The poem goes on to depict an emotionally killing relationship between a mother and a daughter. I remember my palms sweating and my teeth grinding the night those words appeared, as if written by another hand, in the pages of my notebook.
In the poem, the girl dreams that the family home is stormed by street gangs, rock bands, and Nazis who “trash the furniture, raid the refrigerator,” and “have their women in her bedroom.” In the end, the girl hides “upstairs, trying to be quiet,” while the intruders are downstairs, tearing the mother “limb from limb.”
I wonder, if my parents have read the poem, whether they will ask me what it means, and if the “I” in the poem is me, and the “she” my mother. How will I answer them? Will I reel out a teacherly explanation, scolding them that one should never assume “I” is the author?
Before I shipped the book off to them, I tried cutting that poem out with a razor blade, excising it so cleanly that its absence would not be noticed. But I quickly found that the first page of another poem would have to go with it, which meant that I would have to take the second page of that poem, too, causing me to have to eliminate still another poem. In total, removing the offending poem would have meant extracting nine pages from the book — a gap so flagrant that even my parents would notice.
My sister, the newly trained nurse in Minnesota, finally calmed my fears, assuring me that our parents would never read the book anyway, because they’d be “too grossed out by the cover” — a wild painting of three women emerging from the water with breasts bared. Her prediction may have been accurate. So far I have heard no mention of the book — not on the twelve-hour drive to Montana, not during the two days in Bozeman, not on the drive this morning.
Instead, my mother has crammed all available time in which a genuine conversation might have taken place with endless chatter about the volunteer work she’s been doing at her church. Listening to her, I’ve begun to realize that her mind runs on an endless tape loop, like Muzak, repeating hourly the five or six things she knows for certain that week.
On the way home, for example, she becomes fixated on the evergreens — the way they grow “straight out the side of the mountain.” She repeats this observation roughly every seven miles, and I agree with her each time, answering with a light uh-huh, all the while scanning her breathy voice for the slight inflection indicating that she might veer off into disapproval.
“Two hours to Miles City,” I whisper into my shirt sleeve as we pass the industrial smokestacks on the outskirts of Billings. By nightfall, I will have them safely home. To pass the time, I imagine my burgundy-colored van sitting in my parents’ driveway with all its fluid levels topped off and ready to go, patiently anticipating my return so that I can hop in, turn the key, point its nose southeast, and never look back.
It’s ten in the morning. My eyes are already heavy with drowsiness, but I will not yield the wheel. I crack open the window for fresh air and pop myself on the side of the head a few times to wake up.
My mother sits in the passenger seat with her white vinyl purse tucked neatly under her legs. She reaches down every few minutes and touches it with her fingertips to make sure it’s still there. Once we’ve cleared Billings, I press down hard on the accelerator, set the cruise control at eighty, and push into the open road, letting the Oldsmobile swallow up the miles.
I saw the deer a second before we were upon her — time enough to tap the brake and release the cruise, but not enough to warn my passengers or fully slow the car. She moved through the green beside the road, the grass thick and high around her. Then she stepped delicately through an opening and onto the pavement, where she hovered in the emergency lane with her tail turned toward us.
In a field to the right, sunlight reflected off a shallow creek. Perhaps she had sheltered there the night before in the small stand of trees along the water. She seemed to be taking in the day, the cool velvet of her nose sniffing the crisp morning air. She looked to her right, where the creek flowed lightly over rocks and the open field stretched to infinity. She looked to her left, at the twin lanes of worn pavement. Then she twisted her neck and looked down the road, to where our car was hurtling toward her.
Don’t do it, I thought. She seemed to look straight at me, her eyes black and luminous and filled with a kind of dew. Don’t even think about it.
The doe swayed to the right, toward that endless rolling prairie that waited beyond the ditch. Then she turned and stepped left into our lane, the tawny brown of her body growing large in the windshield, meeting with the powerful front bumper of the Oldsmobile, the hood crumpling up, pieces of fiberglass flying to the side as we pushed through, her body lifting up and glancing off, finally coming to rest in the grassy median between the east- and westbound lanes.
As we slowed, the group of cars behind us rushed by, their tires crushing debris and scattering chrome and fiberglass down the road and into the ditches. Feeling the front end wobble, I touched the brakes lightly and angled the car into the emergency lane. My mother’s hand was on the dashboard; my father sat forward in the back seat. The radiator was already blowing a thin plume of steam. Everything was silent for a moment.
My first thought was of my father. Would his heart survive this? I glanced at him in the rearview mirror. He was sitting up, breathing easily, more alert than I’d seen him in days. He caught my eyes in the mirror.
“Are you OK?” I said to his reflection. He nodded yes with a stunned expression, almost as if to say, Wow, that was some ride!
“I didn’t even see it coming,” he said.
“I knew it,” my mother said from the passenger seat in a wavering voice. “I knew we shouldn’t have left home.” She seemed on the verge of crying.
“Are you OK, Gladys?” my dad said to her, putting his hand on her headrest.
“I just had a feeling something bad was going to happen,” she said, rocking in her seat and clutching at her pant legs.
“Are you OK?” I repeated. Physically, she appeared unhurt.
“My car,” she began to cry, putting her face in her hands and rocking in her seat. “My beautiful car.”
“Oh, Mom,” I said, thinking of all the other turns this accident could have taken, “that can be fixed.” I turned off the ignition. “The most important thing,” I said, “is that we’re all OK.” Right about then, I would have appreciated an “Are you OK?” from her.
“I bought this car with my own money,” she answered with a cry. “It was the only new car I ever had.”
“Oh, Gladys,” my dad said from the back seat, “we’ll get it fixed.”
“It’ll never be the same,” she said, pointing to the steam still rising in a thin wisp from the radiator. She nervously undid her seat belt and grabbed her purse from the floor. Outside, cars were whizzing by without even slowing down.
“How are we going to get home?” she said, sounding lost and childlike. She pulled on the handle, and the passenger door cracked open, letting in a rush of wind.
“We’ll figure it out,” I said. I had no doubt we would. For seven years I’d been a road musician, touring in old buses, trucks, and vans on a less-than-zero budget. I’d maneuvered my way through more roll-overs, accidents, and breakdowns by the age of twenty-five than most people experience in a lifetime.
“We’ll have to get it fixed,” I said, as if explaining the obvious to a child. “We might have to rent a car and tow it.”
“Tow it?” she screamed. “We’re over five hundred miles from home!” She pulled out her wallet and began digging through it, removing a driver’s license, an insurance certificate, and a roadway-assistance card from the neat slots of her billfold. “Do you know what that would cost?”
“Could I see those?” I asked, taking the cards from her and scanning them for information. Immediately I saw that my parents were insurance-poor. Although they had a great deal of money from having sold the farm to my brother Rick, they had bought the cheapest policies they could find. For accident coverage, they held a minimal policy from State Farm with a five-hundred-dollar deductible and no emergency-towing services. They didn’t have AAA, like everyone else in the country, but “Oldsmobile Roadway Assistance.” I checked the paperwork, scanning through the long list of exclusions, provisos, and caveats, and discovered that the car could be towed only by an authorized Oldsmobile dealer — otherwise, claims would not be honored. In this way, my parents belonged to the General Motors Corporation forever.
My mother began to pull out all the plastic cards in her wallet one by one, as if the answer lay there. Her hands were shaking as she sifted through the pile: a Social Security card, a lifetime membership to Sam’s Club, an Amoco gas card, and a garden-variety MasterCard. I thought of my own wallet, stashed on the floor of the back seat. Inside it was a secret lineup of cards: a Gold-Plus AAA card, a Preferred Gold MasterCard, and a Platinum Visa.
A slight rush went through my body, and I felt the numbness in my legs that comes after danger has passed. I knew I could get us home.
“We need to get some help,” my mother said, the contents of her purse spilling over her lap. She kicked open the passenger door with her foot, and her hankies, lipsticks, and compacts rolled onto the pavement.
“Oh, Gladys,” my father said. He reached for his windbreaker as she jumped out of the car. “Just wait a second.”
I stretched into the back seat and grabbed my coat. The breeze that had seemed cool and refreshing from inside the car was blowing hard and cold on the outside.
By now my mother was in front of the car, standing at the edge of the pavement without a coat, and waving her Oldsmobile Roadway Assistance card at passing motorists as if the mere sight of it would cause automobiles to go from ninety to zero in five seconds flat. Cars were switching to the left lane to avoid this wild-haired lunatic.
“Why won’t they help us?” my mother screamed into the wind. She stepped into the driving lane and raised her right arm as if hailing a taxi. All the cards from her wallet fell to the pavement.
“Gladys!” my father said with alarm. He rushed to where she stood. I followed, picking up pieces of glass, chrome, and fiberglass as I went.
“Move back!” my father yelled, waving his hands at my mother. He bent to pick up the cards, which were blowing down the highway. “You’re going to get run over!”
“Why don’t you guys get in the car,” I suggested, putting pieces of the Oldsmobile’s front end down in a pile. “I’ll stay out here and try to get help.”
“No,” my mother moaned, a cry apparent in her voice. “Why won’t they stop and help us?”
I circled the car, picking up more debris — the bent rims and bits of glass from our headlights — and adding it to the pile.
“They won’t stop for all three of us,” my father said over the wind, pulling my mother toward the car. She finally yielded, but not before leaving the Oldsmobile Roadside Assistance card with me.
As soon as they were inside the car, a beat-up Chevy pickup pulled to the side of the road ahead of us and snaked its way toward me in reverse, its back-up lights shining. Inside were the two guys with baseball caps, who quickly agreed to drive to the next town and call the highway patrol. I told them what had happened, pointing down the road to where I thought the deer had landed.
“If you bag it,” one guy asked, “do they let you keep it?” He eyed the median nervously, as if considering whether to load up the carcass himself.
“I don’t know what they’ll do with her,” I said.
“Maybe they’ll feed it to the wolves,” the other guy said.
Just then, my mother opened the car door and set her white shoe down on the pavement. “Don’t forget to tell them,” she said, holding on to the door for support, “that it has to be a tow truck from an Oldsmobile dealership.”
After the two guys in baseball caps drove off to make the phone call for us, I knew we’d have a long wait. I spent the time cleaning up the rest of the debris, running back down the highway a hundred feet to where a few large pieces of fiberglass lay in the middle of the road. I waited for the lanes to clear, then I charged across to the median.
I found the deer lying flat and completely still on her right side, her left eye staring blankly toward the sky. I thought about how, for a moment, just as the car lifted her off the ground, before she disappeared from view, I’d seen her eyes one last time. They’d seemed to register shock and recognition, as if she’d always known we were out there somewhere, speeding by on the edge of her world.
I pulled my coat tight and bent over her in the grass. She looked as if she hadn’t moved or struggled in that spot, as if she’d been dead when she landed. I hoped so.
I thought about something a friend had told me about the writer Barry Lopez — that when he sees roadkill on the highway, he stops and blesses the animal and asks forgiveness. I considered doing this, but found that I could not. Something inside me would not say I was sorry.
One thing you discover after you hit a deer is that nearly everyone else in the world has — or has almost — hit a deer. And when you try to tell people your story, they will interrupt you with their own I-hit-a-deer stories. Theirs may even be less dramatic than yours, but they’ve had more time to polish the narrative, so they will rush ahead with the telling and leave you behind, holding a jumbled collection of details that you have not yet neatened into a story. In this way, for a time, you will go away from the experience of hitting a deer frustrated.
That day, after I’d cleared the debris from the road, I returned to the car and told my parents that I’d found the deer. I assured them that she was dead and that she hadn’t struggled.
“I don’t care about the damn deer,” my mother said. “All I care about is my car.” She had smoothed her hair down with a comb and applied a fresh coat of lipstick that ringed her lips in a bright O. Her purse was at her feet again, packed up and all in order.
We spent forty-five minutes waiting for the highway patrol and repeating the four or five things we knew for sure: how no one had seen her coming; how we’d been very lucky; how it could have turned out much, much worse; and how it was no one’s fault. Outside, the wind blew and cars rushed by. The sky grew larger with every passing minute.
When the highway patrolman arrived, he asked to speak only to me, the driver. I gave him my AAA card, my parents’ insurance certificate, and my driver’s license. He offered to give me a ride to town because the tow truck could accommodate only two passengers. My mom and dad agreed to stay with the car.
When I got to the garage where the car would be towed, I knew I had about twenty minutes to devise a plan. I asked the body-shop manager, Jeff, if I could use a phone. He put me behind a desk, and I laid out all the cards in front of me and set to work dialing numbers, calling insurance companies, inquiring about rental trucks. My plan was to strap the car into a tow dolly behind a rental truck and get on the road. We would be home by evening, only a few hours later than planned.
I made careful notes and calculated costs. All told, it came to about two hundred dollars: a small sum of money, in my estimation, which I had decided I was going to pay if the insurance companies would not cover it. I did all this in twenty minutes and was sitting with my feet up on the desk, beginning to feel rather proud of myself, when I thought of a scene in an old movie called The Hawaiians. The film stars Charlton Heston as the imperialist plantation owner who introduces the pineapple to the islands. There’s a scene that’s always stayed with me. Near the end of the movie, the plantation owner’s teenage son grows restless with being the heir apparent to the pineapple fortune and yearns for true adventure. His father, an old sea baron himself, recognizes the problem and arranges for the boy to set sail as a ship’s mate.
The next day, seeing his son off at the pier, the father knocks the boy on the side of the head and says, “Take care of yourself, Son.”
“I will, Pa,” the boy says obligingly.
“And if you get into trouble . . . ,” the father begins, but then he stops himself. He has a world of power and wealth at his disposal. “If you get yourself into trouble . . . ,” he begins again, then turns away and starts the long walk down the pier. The camera lingers on the back of his short-cropped riding jacket, and he yells behind him, “Well, just get yourself out of it, that’s all!”
When I was seventeen my parents drove me to junior college and dropped me in front of my dorm with a few boxes of clothes, records, and books. The goodbyes were not tearful. I was the youngest and most problematic of their five children, so perhaps they were glad to be on their own for the first time in twenty-five years. I suppose I stood on the steps and waved goodbye to them as they drove off, and I’m sure they waved back. They’re not the kind of people who wouldn’t wave back.
Now, as I looked out the window of the body shop and waited for my parents to appear in the tow truck, I was anxious to show them all the survival skills I had acquired since they last knew me. Soon the truck pulled into the lot with the Oldsmobile trailing behind. It seemed strange to see the wreck so far from the freeway, all trussed up and traveling through the city, as if on display.
“Ooo,” Jeff the body-shop manager said, wincing at the sight of the car. “That’s bad.”
My parents climbed down from the tow truck and walked across the parking lot. They appeared small to me then, like kids getting off a school bus at the end of a day full of word problems and pop quizzes.
They came through the door with a beaten look on their faces. I rose quickly behind the desk and introduced them to Jeff, who had taken on our problem as if it were his own, helping me with phone numbers and logistics. Jeff scratched his head as he talked to my parents for a moment, agreeing that, “no, the car sure doesn’t look like it could be driven home,” and adding, “Gee, it sure was strange that a deer was out there on the road at this time of day.”
My parents nodded. My father looked at him with glazed eyes. “We didn’t even see it coming,” he said for the fortieth time.
“Well, here’s the idea I have,” I said, stepping out from behind the desk. I began to spell out my plan, giving details and dollar amounts. I could finalize the arrangements within half an hour, I told them. Then Jeff could mount the car on the tow dolly, and we’d be back on the road.
I stopped, breathless.
“Did I mention,” I said, “that I’m willing to pay for all this?”
It’s not as though I expected them to jump up and clap their hands like a couple of four-year-olds. What I wanted was a sigh of relief, some recognition that the crisis was over.
My mother was shaking her head. My father was looking silently out the window, as if he hadn’t heard anything I’d said. Jeff was standing in the corner watching the scene.
“Mercy, no,” my mother said in a wary voice, as if I’d told her some very bad news. “Oh, no,” she repeated, her voice soft and wobbly.
I realized then that my plan had too many moving parts for her. She was already considering the possibilities: What if the car came loose, rolling backward down the freeway, causing a twelve-car pileup followed by just as many lawsuits? What if the rental broke down, leaving us stuck in some strange town with a broken-down truck and a wrecked car?
“Oh, no,” my mother repeated. Then she walked toward the telephone. “Let’s call Rick,” she said.
Right now, my brother would be in the fields, trying to get his crops planted in time to beat the spring rains.
“Rick could come and get us,” my mother said, liking the sound of it already.
I looked at Jeff. He drew a deep breath and began to move toward the door. “Tell you what,” he said, with his hand on the knob. “I’ll give you folks some time to talk in private.” I couldn’t blame him. Who wouldn’t like to walk across a room and, with one simple turn of a knob, be rid of a family and all the hurts and history they carried with them?
“Call Rick?” I said as soon as Jeff was gone. Granted, Rick owned a Suburban that could tow the Oldsmobile, but I still couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Every day, my father drove out to the farm and nagged my brother, quizzing him and cautioning him: Are you keeping up? How much did that cost? Don’t buy that tractor. Stay ahead of the weather. Don’t let the bank get ahold of you. And now they were proposing that we pull him out of the field for two days during spring planting to come and save us?
“We’re over five hundred miles from home,” I reminded my mother. “It would take him a whole day just to get here.”
“We don’t have any choice,” my mother said. She picked up the receiver and dialed the number to the cellular phone in Rick’s tractor. “Rick,” she said after a moment, “we had a little accident.” She paused while Rick said something on the other end. “We’re all OK,” she continued, “but the car is wrecked.” And now her voice got very high and watery. “And we were wondering,” she said, “if you could come and get us.”
And so it was decided: my brother would arrive late that night with his Suburban, we would all stay in a motel, and in the morning he would take us home, driving a confident ninety miles per hour with the wrecked Oldsmobile hooked to the back bumper.
That afternoon, after everything was settled, we got a ride to a Comfort Inn on the south side of town. In the lobby, I stepped up to the front desk. I had spent half my adult life on the road, checking in and out of motels. This was something I could do.
“Two rooms,” I said, opening my wallet. “Preferably nonsmoking.” I pulled out the Platinum Visa. It felt good to snap it onto the counter.
“Oh, no.” My mother stepped up behind me and looked for a moment at the silver card tucked under my fingers. “We’re all family,” she said, smiling at the girl behind the counter. “One room will do just fine.”
“I’m happy to pay for this,” I said. At this point, all I wanted was a bath, a bed, thirty-five channels of mindless programming, and a few hours of quiet.
“You can’t afford this, honey,” my mother said. “You know you’re not working right now.” She pushed my credit card aside and pulled a stack of crisp bills from her wallet. With her thumb, she began to peel off twenties.
“Let her spend her money if she wants to,” my father said to my mother with a wheeze of exhaustion.
“We should be way past Miles City by now,” my mother said in a confidential tone to the girl behind the counter — as if motel policy required that we explain why we needed a room.
“Really?”the girl said. She was counting the cash, mouthing the numbers as she set the twenties in a pile.
“Yes,” my mother said, taking the girl’s response as a sign of interest.
By this time, I’d moved away from the front desk and was hiding near the continental-breakfast nook. Still, her voice followed me.
“We should be almost home by now,” she said, “but our daughter hit a deer with our car.”
“A deer?” the girl said, with surprise in her voice.
“Our son is coming to get us,” my mother said as I rounded the corner to the vending machines.
“We didn’t even see it coming,” I heard my father say for the forty-first time that day.
I was far down the hallway, almost to the stairwell, when I heard the girl behind the counter begin to tell my parents about the time she’d almost hit a deer.