Momentum

           Momentum

         by Deedee Agee

       

         My mother was not good with forms. She was really bad about applications, renewal forms, warranties, paying bills, depositing checks, mailing things, filing tax returns, signing permission slips, balancing checkbooks - all the forms so essential to a smoothly running life.   I felt good I could help out by telling people on the phone that my mother was out, making emergency bank deposits in midtown, running things up to the main post office to get the date stamped before midnight, and finding things she'd lost in the cardboard boxes and piles which surrounded her table. Every year we drove with an out-of-date inspection sticker until my mother finally got around to first taking it in, and then repairing whatever had caused the car to fail inspection.  When my mother was late paying the garage bill, the guy would call all worried because the car wasn't worth as much as one month's rent in a basement on Perry Street, and she'd send me over there with a postdated check.  My mother was never on time. For anything.  Getting ready took her forever.  To go for a weekend in the country she'd pack up food that would spoil if we didn't take it with us, which led to cleaning out the refrigerator cluttered with weeks of leftovers.  Clothes had to be washed and dried, overdue phone calls made, three cats had to be caught and secured in cardboard boxes taped with duct tape, and then there was the dog and her misplaced leash, the carton of unopened mail and another of her current freelance journalism job, and the stack of newspapers she read every day, critiquing headlines and talking about people in the news and the obituaries like they were the people in her day to day life.  By the time my mother was ready it was the middle of the night, and my sister and brother had fallen asleep on the piles of blankets in the back of the car parked out front at the curb. She preferred to travel late at night when the cover of dark and the empty roads made it less likely we'd be stopped for the inspection sticker.  And then there was the problem with her driver's liscence since technically, she didn't have one because she hadn't gotten around to renewing it when it expired a few years back, but I mean, she'd passed the test.  Once.

         The car was a hand-me-down Ford station wagon from wealthy friends. The heater didn't work, so in cold weather we huddled under quilts and drank hot liquids from thermoses.  In hot weather we opened the windows and, for added ventilation, took up the flattened cardboard box that covered the rusted-through hole in the floor on the passenger side front. This let in some exhaust fumes, which is why we'd plugged it up with the cardboard in the first place, but with all the windows open it wasn't a danger my mother said. Once the hole had rusted through to a certain size, it also served as a travel potty for me and my sister.  We loved squatting over it watching the asphalt flash by just inches beneath us and our urine being whisked away by the wind into the big world outside.  This was so much more fun, not to mention easier, than our previous method: balancing over the narrow neck of a mayonaisse jar.  My mother didn't like to stop.  She traveled with ample drinks and food - cold cuts from the deli, bakery rye bread, jars of mayonnaise and mustard, donuts, fruit.  

         "Once we're underway I don't like to stop," she'd say. "I want to get there."  Perhaps she believed momentum was our only hope.  I remember feeling as a child that any stop threatened the re-emergence of the near terminal inertia which pervaded our household, and all too often got a stranglehold on me so that I'd spend the whole weekend reading comic books and spooning down pints of hand packed ice cream from Pete's candy store across the street.  Now I see it was actually the expired inspection sticker and drivers liscence, and probably insurance too that propelled us onwards.

         My mother considered herself an excellent driver.  I just wished she didn't have to go so fast.  I sat with my feet braced on the dashboard, magically believing that if my eyes traced the contour of the middle line, the car would stay on the road.  I'd read road signs and tell her what was coming up, sharp curve left, deer crossing, bear right for New York City, 60 miles.  She said she couldn't see signs without her reading glasses. 

         My mother was a genius at getting lost.  Once on a Sunday drive she took overgrown dirt roads until we were on a cowpath in the woods, the trees touching the car on both sides.  "There has to be someplace to turn around," she kept saying, but there wasn't, and finally she crested a hill which turned out to be a mudslide, and spun the wheels trying to back up until there was smoke and the smell of burning rubber. She killed the engine.                   "Now what?" she said, working a can opener around the top of a large can.  A whole cooked chicken slid out, its pale beige skin coated with gelatin.  A drumstick and thigh fell off in her hand, and she took a bite. "Now we're really up shit creek without a paddle," she muttered. She seemed to be in a kind of trance, and if I'd let myself feel it, I would have been scared, so instead I walked across a meadow to a farmhouse, and the farmer came with his tractor and pulled us out backwards.  "Can't believe you folks took that old road," he chuckled.  "Ain't nobody been down it since I was a boy."  He charged us $20 and my mother said it was highway robbery, but he had us over a barrel.  

         I was my mother's travel handmaiden. She'd drive and I'd fish her cigarettes out of her bag, punch in the electric lighter, fit the Pall Mall into the black plastic holder, light up and hand it to her trying not to take my eyes off the road.  I got pretty good at knowing what it was she wanted by the way she reached for something - a kleenex, cigarette, snack - liverwurst and white radish sandwiches on black bread, or pizza.  That was the worst, the pizza.  When she reached for a slice I'd take over steering while she tilted her head back to catch the drooping point in her mouth.  At night I'd focus on the furthest away piece of road I could see. It was important to memorize the road as far ahead as possible.  One time on a dead dark night she lunged for the lighter and hit the knob for the headlights, plunging us into blackness like I'd never known, and in that few seconds of nothingness, without thinking I pulled the knob back on, saw the shoulder looming, grabbed the wheel, jerked it to the left, and got us back on the road. I realized then that unconsciously I'd learned the function and location of every knob and lever in the car.  Contrary to my recurrent nightmares in which the lives of my injured family members depended on me driving for help, only I was too small to reach the pedals and see out the windshield at the same time, when I did start actually driving it was so easy.  I'd been driving in my mind for years.  Like an olympic skier practicing the slope in his head at night, I had in my bones the timing and coordination of clutch, shift and brake, the right speed to go around curves.

         We never did get stopped with anything worse than an warning except for one summer evening when we'd parked illegally by a lake and a motorcycle cop was writing out a ticket when we came back.  I saw him glance at the peeling inspection sticker.

         "You're overdue with that, Ma'am," he gestured.  "Long overdue." The setting sun glinted off his polished knee high leather boots.

         "I know that, Officer.  It's simply incredulous, I mean incredible, it didn't pass."  Her German accent was especially pronounced. "I've been meaning to get to it.  It's just..."

         "Ma'am, this ran out in January."

         "Well, yes, but I'm a widower, you see..."  WIDOW, I thought, torn between annoyance at her mistake and puzzlement at her manner with the cop.

         "The long and short of it is it's illegal," said the cop flipping to another page in his pad. "Liscence and registration please, Ma'am."

          My mother began rummaging through her bottomless handbag dumping handfulls of stuff out onto the seat, her bulging wallet, pads of notepaper from Time Inc., envelopes with shopping lists written on them, fat red editors pencils with broken points and ballpoint pens adorned with kleenex bits and hair, half empty cigarette packs, a baby bottle, a box of bandaids, wads of kleenex, old and new, rolls of lifesavers, several pairs of glasses.  When the bag was empty she started in on the glove compartment emptying out maps and teething rings, a leash, a flashlight with no batteries.  That's when I heard my own voice say like I was in a school play, "Mommy, I think you left them in your other handbag."

         She brightened.  "I think you're right honey -- on the bureau in the bedroom."

          The cop looked skeptical.  Just then my fingers reached over and gave my brother's thigh a pinch so that he started crying, and I comforted him loudly, and my mother threw up her hands like I Love Lucy, "Officer, the children are hungry and cold, they need to get home..."

         "Well, I'll just follow you, Ma'am," he said then, and climbed back on his motorcycle.  My mother headed home driving very slowly, the motorcycle headlight blazing through the back window.

         "Now the shits are gonna really hit the fan," my mother said.

         "Shit IS," I yelled.  "Shit IS gonna hit the fan..."           My sister started crying.  "Are we going to jail?" she wailed.   My mother drove slowly, cursing under her breath, my sister wanted to know do you really get only bread and water in jail, and I was trying to think of some other story when suddenly the motorcycle cyclops behind up veered off to the right and we basked in the soothing darkness.

         "What the bejesus did he think, he was going to follow me into the bedroom?" my mother fumed.  But then she bought us all whatever we wanted at the Dutch Treat instead of dinner, and I had a double hot fudge sundae with three cherries. 

         "Now we're cooking with gas," she said, licking a frozen custard spire. I don't know how I ever thought of saying that about the handbag, as though she was the kind of woman who changed handbags to match her outfit when in truth she was the kind of woman with one pair of shoes, three business suits and an assortment of silk blouses with the seams split under the arms, and one enormous handbag stuffed with junk and weighed down with pounds of loose change so that the straps eventually broke and she'd re-attach them with safety pins (an item she considered the greatest invention of all time) until a hole had ripped in the side of the bag.  Then she'd retire it to the handbag graveyard on the floor of her bulging closet where the clothes were jammed in so tightly they didn't hang, but held each other up between the closet walls.  The bags remained there year upon year, creating fresh strata that became the fertile archeological project of my preteen years as I  scrounged cigarette butts, tobacco encrusted lifesavers and spare change and in the process searched for clues about who she was really, my mother.

         The day we took my brother to the airport to go to boarding school in Scotland was our last car trip together as a family.  My mother's tolerance for forms had been taxed to the limit getting my brother ready for boarding school and me ready for college at the same time what with school applications, financial aid, SAT tests, requests for letters of recommendation, passports, innoculations, traveler's checks, etc. My brother was ten years old and on his third or fourth progressive school.  They kept sending him home which was suppossed to be a punishment because you were missing out on a fun day of school, but he didn't mind a bit, and besides that, he still didn't know how to read.  My mother thought he needed a man's influence. She was almost set on a military academy when she heard about a Summerhill school in Scotland that came highly recommended as being good with problem boys.  My brother was kind of a problem what with being in trouble in school all the time and being so accident prone.  He'd broken his arm running into the street and being hit by a car, fallen off the fire escape, shot out my grandmother's windshield with a BB gun, fallen out of a tree holding an ax and cut his leg, and shot a hole in the ceiling while cleaning a shotgun.  At the last minute, my brother refused to go unless his new drum set went too.  So we packed up the drums in the boxes they'd come in and forged on to Idlewild Airport.

         The flight was delayed, and we sat around eating vending machine food, until it was time for my brother to board, and I could see my mother was almost in tears as he walked down the loading gate by himself in his sheep skin vest and matted shoulder length hair.  We waited at the window to see his plane take off, but the takeoff was delayed too, so we left to deal with the drums.

         We got lost finding the freight section of the airport in the dark, but finally we got the drums inside a huge hangar with fork lifts and scales, overhead cranes, winches on moveable tracks, and mountains of crated up stuff, kind of an Ellis Island in reverse. There was such an echo you could barely understand what people said, but it turned out the drums weren't packed according to international shipping regulations, so we had to re-pack them in even bigger boxes, and then re-label everything, and my sister kept asking why they called it a hangar when there was nothing hanging in it, and my mother had to fill out long forms in triplicate and get them stamped at the other end of the building, and go somewhere else for insurance, and it seemed neverending the onslaught of forms and requests for increasingly obscure bits of information -- social security numbers, dates of birth, weights in kilograms, mother's maiden names, bills of sale for proof of value, canceled checks, bills of lading, and finally, when they asked for proof of identity and legal residence, my mother, in lieu of a driver's liscence, started pulling things from her bag -- paystubs, check registers, old con ed bills, a tax return, an expired Austrian passport, until she lost it, just completely lost it, like the time she had a tug of war over a sale table at Kline's when she and another woman picked up two ends of the same sweater in the same moment, and they screamed at each other, stretched the sweater  out so neither of them wanted it in the end -  my mother, helpless in the grip of a sudden surge of primal rage, finally shrieked into the placid face of one of the military-uniform guys, "Get these damn drums off my hair!  Can't you just MAIL them for Christ sake!" The guy stood, blank faced like the guards at Buckingham Palace while she ranted on, and finally, after a few more rubber stamps in different corners of the hangar, they took the enormous boxes reinforced with tape along all the edges and put them on a conveyor belt that disappeared out into the night.          

         We burst out of the hangar into the evening drizzle, running to the car, my mother a ball of fury and exhaustion. "Goddamned piddling bureaucrats," she fumed.

         "PETTY.  PETTY bureaucrats," I said.          

         "I get the front," yelled my sister, leaping into the passenger seat.  "What does "petty" mean?"          

         All I wanted was to lie down in the back and be oblivious, like when I was a little kid on a blanket on the floor of the back seat figuring it'd be safer in an accident because I wouldn't get thrown through the windshield, and at least I wouldn't see it coming, and maybe I'd be killed instantly and never know anything.  I was lying on the back seat in that state you get in on a plane readied for takeoff - it's too late to get off, fate will take its course independent of anything you do, all that's left is the moment and the freedom to be in it fully, the enormous release of there being nothing left to do but simply be. I opened my eyes now and then to watch the lights pass over the ceiling, red, yellow, white, rocking in the cradle of the back seat as the car turned this way and that. It dawned on me dimmly that we seemed to be driving in circles.

          "How in the hell do you get out of here?" my mother seethed through clenched teeth.

         I sat up, wide awake.  We were in a very dark area of the airport with no other cars.  I realized we'd been lurching around for some time.  The road was bumpy and gravely, the pavement broken up.

         "They couldn't put a sign?"  My mother fumed, rummaging in her bag.  "Light me a cigarette."

         I leaned over the seat back to fish one out and told my sister to punch in the lighter. 

         "Huh?" she said emerging from the dream world she was in much of the time. I realized then I should have begun to train her to take over my position in the front seat, although I couldn't imagine her being tuned in enough to keep us on the road.  

         "Under the radio," I said.  "Just push it in." 

         "Wow," she said, finding the lighter, "I just realized that cigarette means a little cigar."

         My mother turned onto a wide, well-paved road.  "I'm fed up to the gills!" she yelled and jammed the gas pedal to the floor, the engine screaming as we accelerated.  The road was dead straight and smooth, with no center line. There were lights on either side, at regular intervals, small blue lights.  In that instant, dark realization bubbled up through the core of my mind and body, a rising phoenix of truth becoming one with a deep swelling rumble, blinding light bloomed out into the night, and I looked out the back window straight into the silver nose of an oncoming 747.

         I screamed. "Get off!  We're on the runnnwwwaayy!"

         Everything seemed to move in jerky slow motion like time release film strips of flower buds opening.  My mother wrenched the wheel and glided the car between two blue lights, bumping off the smooth pavement onto grass, the jet roar penetrating our deepest centers, taking over on a cellular level as the plane magically lifted, floating over our heads and up into the night.  I wondered absently if it was my brother's plane. 

         I imagined the headline:  Death of a Family.  I watched the newsreel in my mind: morning sunlight streams through a high window, slow pan over a warehouse of crates and forklifts, zoom to a seperate group of boxes plastered with official stamps and seals, the drums sitting unclaimed forever, zoom in close up on triplicate form bearing the family name, like an epitaph on a tombstone.

          Afterwards we sat there, our ears ringing, amidst the fresh smell of wet grass until the sound of the plane was no longer audible.  I felt light, purged, serene.  We found our way out of the airport right away then.  It appeared like an exit in a fairy tale, close by and obvious.  I couldn't imagine how my mother had managed not to see it before.

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