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The Great American Road Trip



Honorable Mention for the 2012 Adroit Prize for Prose

          When my mother would say “we’re going,” you went. When I was seven she said, “We’re going to the beach, Janie.” I said that no, I did not want to go. I was silly to think that would stop her. I sat on the couch watching Looney Toons all day and eating stale potato chips from the only shelf I could reach in the cupboard. She appeared in the porch light late that night, crescents of sunburn on her cheeks and one strap of her bikini falling from beneath her crochet cover-up. “You missed a good time, Janie,” she said, like I’d opted out of a cocktail party. Then she put a frozen dinner in the microwave for me and stumbled up the stairs, giggling to herself. I fell and shattered my kneecap standing tip-toed on one of our plastic cushioned chairs, reaching for the steaming piece of lasagna. She thought I didn’t remember these things, but I do.

          The year I turned fourteen was the year my mother became fascinated with The Great American Road Trip. She would unfold a map of the US on our coffee table, so massive it drooped over the edges like a dead plant. She ran her middle finger over the veins of highways and borders, leaving splotches of greasy fingerprints on the laminated paper. One day she was planning our expedition of the Pacific Northwest, the next day our trek through the Midwest. I nodded, using her babble as a soundtrack for my algebra homework. I underestimated her: never did I think my mother could get her shit together for a trip like that. Silly for me to think she would need her shit together to attempt it.

          We set out at five in the morning, a coffee mug in the cup-holder of our old pickup, our bags strangled with bungee chords in the truck bed, and our location still undecided. I fell asleep and when I woke up the driver’s seat was empty, and the car was parked next to a crispy strip of grass at a rest stop. I looked around and saw my mother talking with a group of guys cooking hot dogs on a charcoal grill the size of a throw pillow. She was leaning against their minivan, and to the untrained eye, it looked like she was just chatting up a friendly-looking bunch of men. But it was something much more calculated than that—she was scouting us a free meal. I walked over, planning to use the name Alice if they asked.

          “Oh, Karen, over here, sis!” my mother called, winking at me. I pulled a smile onto my lips and waved back. I wondered who we would be this time.

          “This is Karen, my kid sister.” I nodded at her; I had played this part before, when our car had gotten a flat tire.

          “Nice to meet you,” I said, shaking the hand of the first man who stepped forward. His name was Don, and the pink branching off from his pupils reminded me of the highways on our roadmap.

            “You ladies hungry?” asked Don, with a smile.

          “We certainly are, aren’t we, Karen?” She elbowed me lightly in the ribs, like she couldn’t believe our luck. I didn’t know which name she was using so I just said, “Oh yes we are.”

          We sat on the concrete shoulder of the grass strip, Don sitting next to my mother while two others handed us hot dogs on thin paper plates. Kevin sat down next to me, his rotund stomach quaking as he settled into a comfortable position. “Your sister said you ladies are from Connecticut?” he asked.

            “Mmhmm.” I chewed my hot dog to avoid giving any specifics.

        “I got family down in Mystic. You know that area?” I shook my head. “You don’t know Mystic, not even a little bit?” He pinched an inch of air with his fingers, demonstrating the minimum amount of recognition any regular Connecticuter would have. My mother, always listening in, raised her eyebrows at me over Don’s shoulder, lightly dipped her forehead towards the truck. I raised my chin slightly, but made it look like I was stretching my neck.
“I mean,” I said, swallowing hard, “I know of it.”

       “My brother lives there. Mystic has a great aquarium, you know,” he said, as if this was a gem of rare Mystic knowledge. “It’s a great place to take someone you like,” he told me, smiling. “I find the penguin exhibit,” he stretched skyward, then brushed his left arm towards my shoulder, “particularly romantic.” I bent down to tie my shoe, and his sausage arm recoiled.

     “Karen,” my mother called suddenly, springing up with her empty plate, “I just realized we’re going to be late for gram’s luncheon!”

          I tugged at my shoelace and then jumped towards her. “Oh dear, you’re right!”

       “Nice meeting you fellows,” my mother said, giving a dainty fan of her fingers and tossing her plate in a nearby trashcan. We were already pulling out of our parking space by the time they waved back.

        The next time we stopped it was at a place called Rowdy Dog’s Motel. I still wasn’t entirely sure where we were headed—Six Flags and Water Whizz had been suggested as potential road stops, but she hadn’t mentioned a final destination. A crumpled, gray man with arms sagging to his knees greeted us after my mother honked the horn of the truck twice. He knocked on the driver’s side door and my mother cranked down her window, one hand resting on the pepper spray in her pocket. “What can I do for you ladies?” he asked, dangling his crinkled face into the car.

       “You got any vacant rooms?” my mother asked, putting on her tough-girl accent, which was a mix between a Southie teenager and a New Jersey mother.

          “Yeah, we got room. You can go in the one right there.” He pointed to the last unit in the squat row of connected rooms.

          “Thank you.” My mother began to crank up the window before the man could pull his head out.

        “You need anything,” the man shouted as my mother drove to the parking spot in front of our room, “You just ask anyone for ROWDY.” We were the only car in the lot, and the other units were all dark, even though it was only eight o’ clock. As we untangled our bags from the web of bungee chords I wondered, who was there to ask?

         Once we got settled my mother wanted to talk. “Let’s have Girl Talk!” she exclaimed, bouncing on the brown paisley bedspread. She made it sound as if this was a regular event, like Cold Pizza Tuesdays and Boyfriend Saturdays, when I had to sleep at a friend’s house.

          “Janie, do you have any secrets?” she asked.

        I entered the bathroom and turned on the faucet handle; brown water sputtered from its scratched curve. I squirted some toothpaste onto my dry toothbrush and walked away from the sink, whose drain was oozing something wet and yellow. My mother was splayed facedown on the bed, and lifted her head when I padded onto the scratchy carpet.

      “You’re my daughter.” Her eyes were closed, her knuckles brushing against the carpet. “And I hardly know you.”

          “That’s not true,” I said.

          “I’ll tell you about your father, Janie.”

         I turned sharply away from her towards the bathroom, but her voice grabbed me. “You look like him. More than you look like me.”

          I couldn’t breathe.

       She opened her eyes suddenly, and rolled over to face me. Splotches of pink were blooming under her eyes and on her cheekbones, like someone had pinched her there. “You just can’t trust anyone, can you?”

          No, you can’t, I agreed.

         When I was eleven there’d been one Sunday after Boyfriend Saturday that stood out amongst the rest. It started out normally, my mother moaning about those damn shots and that damn Paul on the couch. That was back when we had Pepper. Pepper was a miracle dog for two reasons: he survived death and almost survived us. When he was a puppy, his first owner was driving on the highway when he had thrown him out of the window of his car. A woman witnessed Pepper’s dismount from the car and slammed on the brakes, then dashed to crumpled Pepper and did 80 on the way to the veterinary hospital. There they cut him open and stitched him together, wiped his raw spots and wrapped them in bandage. And finally, they sawed off his two hind legs. Four hours later, the anesthesia wore off, and Pepper’s tail began to twitch. If that dog was anything, he was, in my mother’s words, “a hardy little bastard.”

          When we spotted him at the animal shelter Pepper was spinning in frantic circles, wheels as tall as his blunt hips painting muddy streaks on the floor of his stall, a stub of a tail wriggling above what should have been his legs. My mother immediately ran to the woman at the front desk and asked, “Can we have the disabled one?”

         By the time I was eleven Pepper had been ours for about six months. For us, that was a milestone—we tended to cycle through things (boyfriends, jobs, kitchen appliances) in our household rather than work to maintain them. Pepper was the only one with staying power.

          On this particular Sunday, it must have been approaching seven months. I heaved the bag of kibble out from underneath the sink and shook the fishy smelling brown pebbles into his bowl, listening for the familiar rattling of his wheels along the kitchen tiles. They didn’t come. “Pepper,” I called, seeing if he was in the living room with my mother. He wasn’t. I felt my pulse rap against my wrist, like the touch of a forgotten bracelet. “Mom, where’s Pepper?”

          She flopped over the torn arm of the couch, head bobbing slightly back and forth. “What?”

          She lost it. She pushed me out the door and into the car, threw Pepper’s leash into the backseat, and drove. We circled the town at least five times, screaming his name at empty sidewalks and parking lots. I looked at the landscape whizzing past us, and something buried in my stomach told me he wasn’t there. A cold, sharp part of me I was just beginning to know already had the answer.

          “Go back,” I told her. She didn’t listen. “Turn around.”

          I ran up the stairs to her room, the flickering of my heart as I passed Pepper’s ramp telling me what I hadn’t yet seen. I opened the door and there he was, head peeking out from underneath the fallen sheet of my mother’s bed. There was an open bottle of gin, and a puddle of the strong smelling liquid stretched across the floorboards. When I picked him up, I could smell it on his small, dry tongue.

          I buried him behind a dead rose bush in our backyard, the only spot with any trace of beauty. It started raining, but sitting there next to the freshly covered hole I didn’t notice, not until a raindrop slipped down my cheek and into my mouth. She came and sat next to me, put an icy hand on my shoulder. “I’m so sorry,” she said, and I didn’t believe her.

          “You ruin everything,” I told her.

          Some people are just too hard to love.

        I left Rowdy’s that night, after she had fallen asleep on the lumpy bed we shared. I told myself I wanted some fresh air, so I got in the car (I’d learned to drive when I was twelve—someone needed to buy groceries) and headed out of Rowdy’s trash studded parking lot. But suddenly I was going way too fast, speeding towards an unknown destination. I wanted to be far away from her, feeling an unidentified knot—Disgust? Hatred?—tightening in my chest. She was so much, and I was so tired. For the first time, I wanted to hurt her. I made a decision to go home, no more Great American Road Trip bullshit.
But of course I couldn’t. And suddenly there was that sharp, hard part of me saying something was wrong, not saying it but shouting it, blurring my vision and making my ears ring.

         I had only been gone an hour, but everything had already happened. There was the flash of red, blue and white lights, whirring over Rowdy’s parking lot like a frenetic lighthouse beacon. There was Rowdy, talking to a man with a silver badge clipped to his chest. The man was saying something about a hit-and-run by a van in the lot. There was another man like that, who called it a freak accident, then asked me what I was doing, couldn’t I see this was no place for a girl? For some reason I laughed at that and it made him mad, so mad that he gripped my wrist and twisted his fingers around it, hard. I heard the other man ask Rowdy who the woman was, and why was she wandering around the parking lot alone at night? Rowdy turned his head, looked at me, and said ask her. The one holding my wrist asked me if I knew her. I said she was my mother, and he let go of me.

         I got into a bad habit of calling her cell phone after that, when I had moved in with a second cousin I’d never met. Hello, you have reached Erin Lewis, please leave a message. The only thing that wasn’t computer-automated was the name, wrapped in my mother’s voice. The last time I called was the day before my high school graduation—We’re sorry, this number has been taken out of service.

       I’m getting married now, and the wedding’s close—a week away. We used to make wedding scrapbooks when I was little. We’d steal Wedding Style and Get Married from the magazine rack at the hair salon, and cut out the pictures of girls with dotted veils and trains the lengths of hallway carpets. We’d glue them onto thick pieces of black construction paper, and then coat the paper with rows of packing tape strips, our own lamination. We were punching holes in the sides of the papers one day, for the metal rings in the scrapbook, and she told me, “Someday I’m gonna walk you down the aisle, and you’ll put these girls—,”she waved her hand over our collage of brides at the altar, “to shame.”

         I called her number today, but this time it didn’t even ring. The line just went dead.

        I wanted to know if she had ever picked a destination, for our road trip—where had we been headed, and where would we have ended up?


Alina Grabowski is eighteen years old and a recent graduate of the Commonwealth School in Boston. She has never taken a true road trip herself but drives around her town blasting Ke$ha and Norwegian pop singer Sondre Lerche on the weekends.