Sunday, June 11, 2017

Road Food For Thought...a summer diversion

"1960" photo by author's father, G.C. Wood
August, 1960. The lush strains of “Theme from A Summer Place” drift from the radio of a sleek 1959 Oldsmobile gliding down two-lane Route 17 between Norfolk, Virginia and Swansboro, North Carolina. That balding, middle-aged man--white-knuckled fingers gripping the steering wheel--is my father, and that slender, raven-haired woman--arms crossed tightly across her lap--is my mother. Behind Daddy, my brother’s thirteen-year-old Carolina Blue eyes scan the passing countryside through his open window. Beside him sits a fat little pug named Pam, bulbous eyes lifted skyward above the skinny back of an eight-year-old girl whose hazel-eyed gaze searches the landscape on her side of the car. I’m that girl. The one who hates it when plump aunts shake their heads and tell her if she doesn’t eat more she’ll “dry up and blow away.

Sure is hot. No air conditioning beyond the warm wind blowing through the windows. A farm slides into view, a few cows grazing behind a barbed wire fence. One, two, three, four…five. “Five more cows!”

My brother turns my way, glancing at the field just beyond the farmhouse. “Graveyard.”

Shoot. Lost all my cows…again. Why is it all the cow pastures on my side of the road have graveyards beside them? “How many you got now, Terry?”

“Thirty-one. Nope. There’s a white mule. Thirty-six now.”

I heave a sigh and lean my head back against the seat. “Mama, I’m gettin’ hungry. We gonna eat soon?”

She snaps off the radio and faces my father, cocking one arched eyebrow. “Well?”

Daddy pulls a damp handkerchief from his pocket and wipes the back of his neck. “Like I told you, we could stop at the restaurant near Little Washington. It’s air conditioned,” he says, eyes glued to the road.

“It’s Saturday night,” Mama says through clinched teeth. “You know what that means.”

“It means they’ll be open,” he says.

Mama hugs herself tighter and stares out her window. I don’t think she’s counting cows. I rest my arm on Pam’s pudgy back and look at Terry. His wide eyes brush my way before squinting at our parents. I touch his arm and raise my eyebrows when he looks back at me. Shrugging, he returns his attention to the window.

The hazy sun is lower now, and I have to cup my hands around my eyes to shield them from its western glare. I feel something besides hunger gnawing at my stomach. “Mama? I think I’m gonna be sick.”

“You’re probably too hungry.”

“She’s probably too hot,” adds my father.

I think I’m both too hungry and too hot but verbalizing this seems like a bad idea. My brother reaches down into the jumble beneath his feet and hands me a paper bag. Seeing it makes me even queasier. 

“I don’t think I can hold it in.”

“Pull over,” says Mama and the Olds comes to an abrupt halt off the side of the road.

She opens the door and helps me out into the dry scratchy grass, gently guiding me toward the deep ditch bordering the highway. Her hand presses against my forehead and steadies me as I bend over and empty the purple vestiges of my Nehi Grape Soda into the long shadows of rustling tobacco plants. “I’m sorry, honey. We’ll get you something to eat soon.”

Back inside, I slump into the depths of the seat and stroke Pam’s plush back. Daddy starts the car but doesn’t move us back onto the road.

“The restaurant’s just a couple miles away.”

“It is Saturday night,” repeats Mama as though this means something other than the fact the restaurant’s open for business.

Daddy drapes his freckled arm over the steering wheel and peers at her. “I don’t see the problem.”

“Look at us!” she says.

I look down at my polka-dotted shorts and scuffed sandals and over at my brother’s cut-off jeans and sneakers.

“I am looking at us,” says Daddy. “What’s the problem?”

“You remember what it’s like in Little Washington on Saturday night. We lived there long enough. People get all dressed up and go out to dinner. Dresses, hats, gloves, suits, ties. We’re in shorts and we’re sweaty!”

“But…there’s air conditioning,” says Daddy as though this makes up for our lack of fashionable decorum.

Mama’s shoulders look as though they’ll meet her earlobes any second now. “Let’s stop at the drive-in. They have chili dogs.”
Good. I like chili dogs.

“No air conditioning,” says Daddy as he glances over his left shoulder and pulls back onto 17.

Icy silence chills the front seat. Too bad we can’t tap into its frost. I close my eyes as the hum of the highway and the heat lull me into light sleep. Terry can have all the cows.

I’m jerked awake as the car jolts to a sudden stop. Pushing my knobby elbows against the seat, I rise up and peer out. It’s the drive-in. Without a word, Daddy gets out, slams the door, and marches to the outside order window.

Mama twists around toward the backseat. “Terry, go help your father carry the food.”

My brother heaves an adolescent sigh and hauls himself out of the car. I watch as Daddy exchanges cash for a bag of hot dogs and four Cokes, handing Terry two of the green glass bottles. Returning to the car, Daddy slides back behind the wheel and gives Mama the white bag. As she doles out the chili dogs, each wrapped snugly in waxed paper, Daddy starts up the Olds.

“We could sit here while we eat,” she says.

“Too hot,” says Daddy, his face glowing a violent crimson.

Soon, dusky summer air is flowing once more through the open windows as Terry and I settle back, cold bottles pressed between our thighs, juicy hot dogs dribbling chili through our fingers, Pam accepting her share from both of us. Daddy drives with one hand and fumbles at the chili dog wrapper with the other. After a few unsuccessful tries, he tosses it back into Mama’s lap. She carefully unwraps it and turns toward him, hot dog balanced in her right hand. Without a word of warning, she throws it against the side of his face, chili and onions streaming down, sliding over his ear and down his neck.

The earth stands still for a few heart-stopping moments as Daddy continues to drive, staring silently ahead, the disassembled hot dog resting on his shoulder. This is something new. We’re used to our parents bickering but it’s always limited to verbal sparring. Never anything approaching physical. Terry and I exchange wide-eyed looks of horror. The world as we know it must be over. Pam stands up and places her front paws on the back of the front seat, stretching her scrunchy neck toward Daddy, little pink tongue reaching for the aromatic trails of chili inching down his throat. Terry grabs her back before she makes contact, grasping her tightly against his chest like some kind of canine life preserver.

Then, a quiet ripple of sound breaks the tomb-like silence. I think Mama is crying. Her narrow shoulders twitch rhythmically as the sound grows louder. She turns to Daddy and I see tears spilling from her eyes but…but she’s laughing! Has she lost her mind? Daddy looks at her, wipes a red ribbon of chili from his glasses and bursts into laughter as he slows the car, pulling it to a stop beside the road. Mama removes the sticky glasses from his face as he collapses into a stomach-clutching belly laugh. Terry and I look at each other in disbelief then dissolve into laughter, ourselves. Curly tail wagging against her wiggling hips, Pam barks and slips from my brother’s arms, snatching the stray hot dog as it rolls down Daddy’s back. Reaching across the seat, Daddy gathers Mama into his arms, rocking her from side to side as the precious music of healing laughter fills the car.
Our world hasn’t ended after all. And I’ve learned an important life lesson about the power of good-hearted laughter and self-deprecating humor.

Years later, I hear it summed up in a quote by John Powell, “Blessed is he who has learned to laugh at himself for he shall never cease to be entertained.”

Thanks for stopping by...y'all come back now.  

(This essay originally appeared as my contribution to the 2015 visual arts and literary review, Estuaries, published by College of the Albemarle.)