My Own Little Gravity
It was hot and the air conditioner broke. Dad had rolled the windows down and that helped some but not much. We were cruising, though. Mom was smoking, her perm quivering stiff in the wind. Dad was drinking beers, and I was passing them forward from a cooler on the seat beside me every twenty minutes or so. We’d all been at it for a while—Mom smoking, Dad drinking, and me hustling beers ahead while we drove to the coast.
Anyway, we hit the beach traffic around eight in the morning. I remember because Dad said, “Aw Christ. It’s only eight and it’s already this backed up.” He leaned his head out the window to get a better look. “It’s gotta be two goddamn miles.” He pulled his head back in and repeated himself.
“It’s fine,” Mom said, and she said it like she knew something we didn’t.
Dad whacked the horn a few times as we crawled to a stop. The guy in the station wagon ahead of us tossed up his arms.
“Yeah yeah, pal, it wasn’t personal. Take it easy. I was just sayin’,” Dad said, then honked again, but this time a little tap with the heel of his palm.
“Dickie, knock it off!” Mom said. She looked like she wanted to go upside his head like she did sometimes when she was mad about something.
Dad’s knuckles went white on the wheel. “Everyone just shut up, okay? No yelling! Not today. It was an apology honk. The guy knows what the fuck I meant.”
“Let’s just have a good time,” Mom said. She flicked her cigarette out the window. Ashes blew back and spun through the car, landed on my sundress. I tried to wipe them off, but they turned into gray streaks.
“No one’s stopping you,” Dad said, and turned up the Red Sox game on the radio.
There was a hand-painted sign on the side of the road. It said, PARKING: LOCAL $5, NON-RESIDENTS $19. GREENHEAD SEASON—NO REFUNDS.
“What’s a greenhead?” I said.
Dad squinted at the sign. “Them chiselers gouge you any way they can. Can you believe that shit?” He finished off his beer, then spat out the window. A big glob landed in front of the sign and darkened the asphalt.
Mom flinched, then wiped her cheek. “What the hell’s the matter with you?”
“Mom, what’s a greenhead?” I said.
Dad looked at her. “Nothin’s the matter with me. What’s the matter with you?”
Mom pulled the visor down, checked herself in the mirror, then closed it. “That got all over me.”
“Relax. It wasn’t on purpose,” Dad said. “You act like I did it on purpose.” He crushed his empty Rolling Rock in one hand and passed it back to me. “Make the next one a goody, Vi,” he said, and winked at me in the rearview.
Mom said, “Let’s just have a good time. Can we? Please?” I couldn’t tell who she was talking to. She lit another cigarette and sucked on it until a chunk of ash fell in her lap.
I dropped the empty can in the cooler. “Daddy, what’s a greenhead?”
His eyes found me in the rearview, and he looked tired. “It’s a fly. With a green head.”
“Yeah. And they bite. Where’s my road soadie, Vi? Hurry up. Chopity chop.”
I handed him another beer from the cooler. The can was so cold it made my hand ache. “Here’s a goody,” I said.
Dad opened it and drank. “You bet, you bet, you bet,” he said, and made a few trumpet sounds with his mouth. He looked at Mom and smiled at her with his wet lips.
“Are you just gonna drink all day?” she said.
Dad’s smile went away. “The hell else is there to do?”
“Slow down on the beer, Dickie.”
“I just want to have a good time.” He looked at Mom and flashed his big white teeth at her. She didn’t seem to find anything funny, though.
On the radio, someone got excited, so Dad turned it up another notch.
Mom grabbed the TV Guide she’d brought with her and started flipping through the pages.
Dad looked sideways out the window and spat again. “Christ, twenty bucks for parking? This day’s reeeally adding up.”
Mom didn’t say anything to that, but she wanted to because she stopped flipping pages. The beach was her idea. She had been talking about going all summer, but Dad was against it. He said he didn’t get the point, and I guess I didn’t either.
The line of traffic started moving, but the car ahead of us didn’t. Dad used the horn again. “Let’s go, you chiseler!” He looked at Mom. “This guy. Get a load of his bumper sticker.”
The man in the car ahead held up his middle finger, then pulled forward after another car farther back honked too.
“You see that?” Dad said to himself, then turned to Mom and repeated himself. I could see his neck turn the same red as the flowers on his Hawaiian shirt.
“You had it coming,” Mom said.
“This piece of…” Dad smacked the steering wheel, then leaned his head out the window. “This asshole isn’t paying attention!” He turned to Mom. “You know, that’s what traffic is, huh? A ripple effect of assholes, all of ’em, not one each of ’em, paying attention. It adds up.”
I lifted myself up so I could read the bumper sticker. It said, BUSH 88 QUAYLE. I didn’t know what it meant.
“This guy’s a chiseler, Dad!” I said.
He laughed and nodded. “Sure is, Vi.”
Mom didn’t seem to feel one way or another about it, but I thought she should.
I tapped her on the shoulder. “Mom?”
“Yeah, Vi,” she said, not turning around.
“Can I have the sun cream?” I said.
Mom picked her head up from the magazine and looked straight forward. “Why?”
“I want to read what it’s made of.” I started kicking the back of her seat.
“It’s made of chemicals, Vi.”
“What kind of chemicals?”
“When we get there,” Mom said. “Stop kicking the seat.”
I stopped kicking, and turned my head and spat out the window.
“Vi!” Mom said. She spun around, one pale, loose arm draped over the seat. “Knock that crap off!” Ashes fell from the cigarette she had pinched between her fingers and landed on the floor.
“What crap?” I said. Maybe I even shouted it a little.
“Don’t spit!” She touched my knee with the hot end of her cigarette. It stung, and it made me think of what one of those green-fly bites might feel like.
“Ow! That hurt!”
“Then don’t spit.”
“I didn’t spit,” I said, rubbing my knee.
She got me with the cigarette again, nearly in the same spot.
“Stop it, that hurts!”
“Don’t lie, neither, then, Vi.”
Two little red marks started showing on me knee.
“Sue, she’s not gonna shut up. If she wants the sunblock just give it to her, for cryin’ out loud,” Dad said.
She looked at him. “It’s at the bottom of the bag.”
“Dear Christ, not the bottom of the bag, Sue,” Dad said, then rested his head against his fist. “We ain’t goin’ nowhere. Just give it to her if she wants it.”
Mom turned back around, rummaged through the canvas bag she had packed, and handed me the sun cream. Before she let it go, when both our hands were grabbing it, she looked at me all serious. “If you spit again, Violet Munroe,” she said in a real low voice that kind of scared me, “I’ll smack your bare-bottom in front of this whole line of cars. You hear me? It’ll hurt for a week.”
I don’t think I’d ever seen her so angry. And I believed she’d do it, so I only nodded, and she let go of the sun cream. I pretended to read the bottle, but really I was just looking at the little girl on the container who was getting her bathing suit pulled off by a little pipsqueak dog. I thought it was a strange thing. If a dog tried to do that to me, I’d make it leave me alone.
I dropped the sun cream on the seat, then looked down and found the piece of ash that had fallen off Mom’s cigarette. I leaned over and squashed it with my thumb. It left a gray spot on the red carpet and a little black smudge on my thumb. I licked it to see what it tasted like. It wasn’t very good.
The line of cars started moving and we came to a place where two roads turned into one. There was a policeman directing traffic, helping cars merge. He had on a bright orange vest and his face was shiny in the sun. Dad turned the radio down and told me and Mom to shut up and keep our eyes forward as we crawled by the policeman.
After we went by, I was starting to sweat so I hung my head out the window for some air. Mom picked her head up from her TV Guide and saw me in the side mirror.
“Quit pouting,” she said.
I told her, “I’m not pouting. It’s hot back here.”
“Yeah, well, it’s hot everywhere.” She picked her nose and flicked something out the window. It didn’t seem fair because she always yelled at me for picking my nose.
I pulled my head back in the car. “Can I have a beer? I’m thirsty.”
Dad laughed. “Nice try, chiseler. I didn’t bring enough to share.”
“I might want one later,” Mom said.
“We’ll see,” Dad said. “I didn’t factor you in.”
Mom turned down the radio. “Factor me in?”
My skin was sticking to the seat, and I was starting to get uncomfortable. “How much longer?”
“We’ll be there soon,” Mom said.
“Like hell we will.” Dad leaned over and fixed his hair in the mirror. He looked funny doing it because he didn’t have much left.
Mom looked at him and her eyes went all squinty like they did when something was squatting on her mind. She closed the TV Guide and tossed it on the dashboard.
Dad noticed her. “What?”
A group of older girls walked by on the side of the road, laughing and having a good time. They were carrying beach chairs and towels and wearing practically nothing. One of the girls already looked sunburned. Dad looked at them as the traffic moved forward. I opened the cooler, grabbed a handful of ice and stuffed it in my mouth to cool off. It gave me a headache, so I spit it into my hands and dropped it on the floor and kicked it under the seat.
Dad said, “Remember when you looked like that, Sue?”
Mom’s eyes went squinty again and she flicked her cigarette at the side of his head. Sparks and ash exploded off his temple and some got in my eyes.
Dad started swiping at himself off like he was chasing a spider off his clothes. “Jesus Christ, Sue! What’s the matter with you? Are you kidding me?”
“Watch the road, Dickie.”
“You coulda burned my fuckin’ eye out.”
“Watch the road,” Mom said again. She didn’t sound like she meant it though, and she was grinning.
I saw the car ahead of us getting closer and Dad wasn’t looking up. “Daddy,” I said.
“I spilled my—”
We crashed and came to a hard stop. The guy in the station wagon ahead of us tossed his hands up again.
“Look what you did!” Dad said. His neck was red again. “Goddamnit… I…What were…” Dad squeezed Mom’s arm, then shoved her. “That was too far, Sue. Too far.”
The guy in the car in front of us got out. He was an older man in a floppy white hat, and he was short and fat like a mushroom.
Dad held his hand out the window and put up a finger. “Just a sec.”
“You should pull off to the side,” Mom said.
“Daddy, did you hit that guy?”
The guy took off his hat and tossed it back in his car, then went to the back of his car and looked down at the bumper. He put his hands on his hips and shook his head. He turned to us and did the same thing. “Weren’t you paying attention?”
Dad opened the door and stepped out. “Yeah. Yeah, I was paying attention and I hit you anyway.”
Mom looked back over the seat. “You okay, Vi?”
I told her I was, and she snatched the sun cream off the seat and put it back in the bag.
Dad went to the front of the car, and I heard him say, “It’s not too bad. It’ll buff right out.” I couldn’t hear the other guy anymore, but he looked angry and he pointed to the side of the road.
Traffic started moving, and a car behind us honked. Then a few more did too.
Dad shouted. “Go around!” Then he turned back to the guy and I heard him say, “No, we don’t need to do that.”
The guy shook his head, crossed his arms, and said something. Dad pushed him.
Mom laughed and lit another cigarette.
The guy started waving his arms, and I looked over my shoulder and saw the policeman walking over. Dad put his hand on the guy’s shoulder, and the guy pushed it off and backed away. I heard him say, “Not my problem. I can smell it.”
“He’s in trouble now,” Mom said, and grinned.
The policeman passed by the car and someone honked and the policeman waved them forward. Cars started pulling around us.
Mom and me watched for a little bit while the policeman talked to Dad and the man. Pretty soon, another police car showed up and it had its blue lights flashing. The police car said IPSWICH POLICE DEPARTMENT on the side. Another policeman got out and pulled Dad aside and made him stand on one leg and touch his nose. I kept thinking they were going to have us move off the road, but they never did. Cars just kept going around, and people kept staring, looking mad as they went by.
Eventually, the policeman who had been directing traffic came up to the car and leaned in the window. The little piece of metal on his shirt said, T. MONTEIRO. “Hi, ma’am,” he said, then looked at me and smiled a little, but I could tell he didn’t mean it. A drop of sweat dripped off his nose and into the car.
“Hi, officer,” Mom said. “Is my husband in trouble?”
“He failed a field sobriety test, so he’s being arrested for D.W.I. Has he been drinking?”
Mom laughed. “Of course he has,” she said. “He’s an asshole, too.”
The policeman smiled flatly. “Have you?”
“It’s not even nine in the morning.” Mom blew in his face. “I’ll take your little test if you want.”
“No, I don’t think that’s necessary.”
At the front of the car, the other policeman turned Dad around and put his hands behind his back. Dad kept shaking his head. The policeman walked him back to the police car. On his way by, Dad bent down and looked at Mom. “Sue, you gotta meet me at the station. Okay?”
Mom smiled and waved and then Dad was being put in the police car behind us. “What now?” she said.
“We’ll bring him downtown,” the policeman said. “He should be booked and processed within the hour. You guys are free to go.”
“What about the accident?”
“Consider yourself lucky. He said he doesn’t want to get insurance involved. Must be your day.” The policeman looked at me and winked. “It’ll be okay,” he said, and left.
The guy who Dad had rear-ended got in his car and drove ahead. Mom slid across the seat and started the car.
“What’re we doing?” I said.
She adjusted the mirror. “Going to the beach, Vi.”
“What about Dad?”
“He’s not going anywhere.”
We pulled up until we hit the line of traffic again. It was moving slow, but it was moving. We went around a bend and Mom kept looking in her side mirror.
“You see the police still?” she said.
I turned around and looked. “No,” I said.
“Hold on tight,” Mom said.
She turned the wheel hard, pulled out of line, and then we were going the wrong way on the wrong side of the road, but we were pointed toward the beach. Mom hit the pedal and the engine started screaming and I was pushed back in the seat. Cars started whipping by outside. People honked and shouted as we cheated past them on the wrong side of the road. I looked ahead, and nothing was coming at us. Then it looked like there was. Mom hit the brakes, found an opening, and snuck us back into the traffic line. The person behind us gave a long horn blast.
I was laughing. “No cutsies! No cutsies!”
“Thank you,” Mom said, then smiled and waved at the car behind us.
When everything had settled, she pulled down the visor and looked at herself in the mirror. “We’re almost there,” she said. The Red Sox were still on the radio, but she shut it off and we sat there with the grumble of the engine.
Mom wasn’t talking much, but eventually she found at me in the rearview and smiled.
A fly came in the window and landed beside me. I’d never seen anything like it, so I swatted it.
Its guts smeared like snot across the seat, and I saw green in the mess.
Mom turns the wheel, pulls out of line, and we’re flying down the wrong side of the road again, beach traffic a blur beside us. We’re moving faster.
The wind is all around us. Mom has both hands on the wheel. The cigarette in her mouth glows a mean red.
In the distance, the beach gate comes into view, and we move toward it.
My hand grips tight on the door handle, and the engine keeps screaming. Louder and louder. I close my eyes. For a moment, I’m floating through space. I let go. We’re cruising again.