by Jules Archer
It’s mama’s car. A big boatload of a machine, the ’65 Chevy Impala is. The only thing she ever bought with her own money until daddy got hold of her.
Mama always drives. Daddy always gets the passenger seat. And when daddy goes away I keep taking the backseat. Mama loves daddy more than me. But I don’t mind.
Sometimes I love daddy more than me too.
When I’m young, daddy and I have a conversation:
“Mama gets sad, Maybelline. You know that right?”
“I do, daddy.”
“And if she’s ever sad around you, you come get me, you hear?”
Daddy swats a mosquito away. He reaches over to squeeze my knee, the knobby bone waffling under his palm. “You’re a good girl.”
Sometimes, when daddy isn’t working, the two of them take the car out. Mama blows me a kiss, daddy, a wink, before climbing into their respective spots.
They never tell me where they go but they come home giggly and smiling.
I know though.
Mama’s blouse smells faintly like the lilacs that grow down by Chesser’s Pond, a mossy overgrowth of scummy water. Kids at school use it as a place to neck and pet.
They stumble through the front door, stop in the middle of the kitchen and just dance. Daddy hums some tune only mama recognizes. She stands on the tops of his feet, both of them swaying back and forth, reeds in a light breeze.
Mama dances on daddy’s toes until the sun rises.
We’re sitting in wicker, relegated to the porch after one of Mama’s spells, the ice cubes in my lemonade clinking together as I take long, deep gulps. Daddy wipes sweat from his brow and cradles his beer.
“Why’d you save her daddy?” I ask.
I always ask this; phrase it nicely on honest nights, when all I really want to know is why he ever married someone as crazy as she.
His response never wavers. “She needed savin’. We both did.”
I just sip my drink.
We expect mama to cry when daddy gets the letter. Instead, she grits her jaw and fires up a batch of eggs over-easy. Daddy watches her back quiver as she stabs the runny yolks.
He takes my hand when she snaps, “Are you coming to breakfast or what?”
“Don’t leave me here alone,” I whisper.
“You’ll be alright, just listen to your mama.”
“She never liked me. She likes you better.”
Daddy dips his forehead to mine. He kisses my cheek, brushing hair out of my face. His palms shake.
She drives him to the base. I stand on the porch and wave goodbye to taillights.
He is all she talks about.
From the movie we can’t see because Daddy wanted to, to the dinner we can’t cook because it’s his favorite meal. I want to ask, What about me? What about me, mama? Instead, I go sit on the porch and wish for something I shouldn’t be wishing for.
I catch mama ripping up coupons in the middle of Aisle Two, in front of the bread and English muffins.
“Mama, what are you doing?”
“C’mon, Maybell, we’re going.”
“We don’t need milk! Don’t you see? We have milk.”
I think of the empty fridge at home but keep quiet.
Mama gets a letter and begins humming daddy’s tune. She smiles. She takes me in her arms and we sway. I breathe in her soft scent and am surprised when her blouse smells like lilacs.
I answer the door. Two uniforms stand there, solemn faces, jumpy eyes. “Is your mother home?” one asks.
It sounds like a trick question but I call for her anyway. The thumping of my heart can be heard in my ears. Mama rounds the corner, stopping in the middle of the hall when she sees them. She lets loose a wild keen and flees upstairs. Her bedroom door ricochets shut; photos rattling on the wall.
She cries at night. I bury my head under my pillow so I can’t hear her scream into hers.
A week later, we drive out to Chesser’s Pond.
Even without daddy around, I still crawl into the backseat, the vinyl squeaking a protest. Mama says, “Lock your door,” and pulls her seatbelt tight.
Magnolia trees wave at us as we drive tar streets through town before winding up on the dusty gravel back road. The Impala descends down the sloping hill, the glistening pond waiting in periphery. Mama wheels into a spot with a perfect view of the mossy green water. She leaves the car running.
It runs for a long time.
My leg bounces. My fingers move to the shiny, metal lock.
The voice is crisp. “Don’t you dare touch that knob, Maybell.” Nubby fingers stop their forward march. We wait some more in the idling car. I put a hand on the window, pressing flat against shiny cool glass, a fortuneteller palm on a crystal ball. It’s hot and after a long while I ask, “Can I get out now, mama?”
Wrapping an arm around her headrest, she twists around. She looks through me, at the door, at the heat outside, considering. She faces forward again, placing both hands around the steering wheel.
I jerk the lock up, throw the door open wide and tumble out of the backseat.
Mama rolls down her window. “Daddy left us some money in the Folgers’s can under the sink.”
With that, she puts the car in gear and hits the gas. The Impala hits Chesser’s Pond like an iceberg and for a moment, I almost think the old Impala will float, but then mama and the car sink beneath the mossy surface. My greasy palm print still on the window, lifeline and heart line smudged against the glass.
~ Originally published in Up the Staircase Quarterly, Issue 19, 2012
BY JULES ARCHER
Published: February 2020
Publisher: Thirty West Publishing House
Following her successes from All the Ghosts We’ve Always Had, critically-acclaimed flash fiction writer, Jules Archer, returns to the dinner table with Little Feasts, her debut short story collection. The stories are a table-long buffet of femininity, a lying tree, childhood innocence, toxic masculinity, and a 20-pound cast-iron skillet. Works within have been featured in Five:2:One, SmokeLong Quarterly, Maudlin House, PANK, and more.
Illustrated by Carolyn Brandt