It was a winter night when my mother told us she deserved more. A car had stopped on the side of the road and she reminded us then about the summer her Ford stalled on the side of the I-90 highway, twenty miles outside the Ohio stateline. The engine was gargling some noise for about a mile before she finally steered her blueberry Escort to the side of the road with an 18-wheeler honking and whipping past her. Nobody came to help her that day and she said it took three hours of walking on the busy highway and down the nearest exit for a single gallon of gas.
It was that memory that made her wheel over for a sedan banked on the outskirts of our Canton suburbs. We found them on a remote street just a few blocks before the turnout to the highway. They had stalled right underneath a streetlamp and through the orange glow you could make out an outline of the shaky evergreen boughs looming above the roof of their car. We had come from picking up a week’s worth of groceries at the Shop ‘n Save before heading back to our rented trailer in Deerland Park. You could still see sticky glue residue left from a half dozen bumper stickers. The left back brake light was cracked and held together by brown packing tape. It was a small red car but it seemed like a half dozen people were spread across the back seat. My mother parked behind it and left us waiting in the back seat with the emergency lights on.
“Sit here,” she said. “I’ll be back soon.”
Snow was beginning to fall in frail snowflakes against the windshield and the cold wind pressed against our cheeks as our mother opened the door and exited the car. From our view we could make out the row of people in the backseat in all their stillness. They had stopped turning their heads from one direction to the next and now turned their heads squarely to the left as my mother rapped her knuckles on the white glass.
“Are you alright in there?” Her voice cracked. The faceless heads looked at each other before she rapped again on the snowy glass, right as the driver was unrolling his window. The driver’s left hand came out in a jolt. His fingers moved emphatically as he hijacked his fingers up and down in the air before he returned both hands to the steering wheel in a big slam. We couldn’t hear our mother after that. The wind began to howl and the snow moved around us in big whirls. It was another few minutes of my brother and I punching each other with our puffy mittens before we saw the driver free his hands from the steering wheel and wave them up and down again in the snow. My mother stood there, arms crossed, adjusting her olive green wool coat and tightening the belt around her tiny waist that no bigger than my younger brother’s. She tucked her head into her chest, walked back to our car, and then opened and slammed the door shut with a force that made the snow from our windows jump.
“We’re going to move him, ok?” We could see her exhaustive puff of air hovering in the air. Her hands were at ten-and-two on the wheel.
She said it like we weren’t there.
“That’s what we’re going to do. Ok?”
We responded from the backseat in straight, hushed voices, certain, as usual, that we had no say in moving the car or not. The car was leaning to its side and its right wheel was packed deep into a hill of muddy slick. By then the groceries at my feet had begun to look colder in the moonlight. Frozen peas and a half dozen cans of beef chili. A pound of chicken breast glistened underneath its plastic wrap.
My mother revved up the car and we slowly lurched forward. The hand came outside the window, directing us to ease up more, and then when we hit its bumper with ours, that’s when the screeching started. The tiny heat escaping the vents of our car started feeling senseless. My mother’s eyes and mouth bunched together like the wrinkles in her coat. She was focusing on the man’s bumper and the pressure of her foot on the gas pedal. Then the hand came out again, rolled into a fist, and it punched the air. It took my mother nearly two seconds to unroll her window and snake her head outside and yell out to the man ahead.
“Now?” she yelled.
Her voice was weaker on the second yell, and she stayed there paralyzed in the snow, locked bumper-to-bumper with the man ahead.
“I don’t know what this man’s doin’. Are we movin’ or what?”
She spoke under her breath, like she usually did, but then I noticed her eyes widen. The man had come from outside of his car and was walking toward ours. My mother let out another cold breath and rolled down her window. My brother and I both looked at each other as the man came down to meet my mother’s eyes. He had green eyes and nose much like our father’s and his resemblance to him made my mother flail her hand to the back to keep us from talking. He must have been as old as my mother, but like my father he had the face of a Civil War general. A silver ponytail weaved itself out from underneath the hood of his jacket and lay just underneath his chin. By now he had grabbed both his hands on the frame of my mother’s car door, and with both in plain view, I could see his hands were swollen with all but his pinky finger the size of the Dill pickles like at the bottom of our groceries.
My mother turned to face him as he bent down to meet her.
“Listen, when I do this, I want you to punch the gas.”
His eyes crinkled. Snowflakes were falling on his lashes and his thumbs. His voice sounded like when our father told us to stop our whining. He began to clench his fingers again.
“This means GO.”
He punched the air like earlier and said my mother’s little voice didn’t travel far, and never would in the snow we were in.
“Don’t even try to talk to me from all the way out here.”
My mother nodded.
“Let’s try it again, then.”
She wound her window up. The man got back into the car and the horde of heads looked straight ahead. He let out his fist again and shot it straight. My mother slammed the gas pedal with her foot and leaned back to push it harder. You could hear the loud screeches again, this time from both of the cars. The man was punching the air in succession as my mother’s knuckles turned the shade of red poppies the way they were stretching across the leather steering wheel.
“C’mon,” she let out. “C’mon. C’mon.”
My brother and I turned to each other from the back seat and then moved in closer to the front window and hung our hands over the headrests. Her right leg was fully extended and her coat was riding up the way she was hitting the gas. She was biting her lip and breathing heavy when the man from ahead stopped his hand, wet from the falling snow, and dropped his hand. My mother stopped the screeching and let off of the gas, letting out a sigh of relief until she saw the man open up his car door again.
The man was on his way over and this time, he banged on my mother’s window.
“What was that?” he had come within inches of her pink nose, now soft with mucus.
“What do you mean?” she said. “I did what you asked. I punched it. I floored the gas.” Her yelling didn’t pique above a firm command, and the way she erected her back into a stiff posture hid the way she had bent earlier.
From the backseat I could still sense his frustration, and the way my mother looked back, I could tell she was seeing something within his eyes he wasn’t seeing. The way my mother turned her nose to him in timid bursts, the way she looked back at the wheel averting his gaze, it was the same look back in the kitchen with my father. She had become accustomed to fits and shouting matches, and when I saw her with this man, his ponytail gathering snow at the tail ends, I could see something else brewing from inside my mother’s furnace. I turned to my brother who had almost fallen asleep were it not for the man’s pounding on my mother’s door.
“Now, listen, lady. This car isn’t gonna move with you thinking that pedal is some kind of garden hoe. Maybe we should switch places. You in my car, and I’ll get in yours.”
I wasn’t expecting my mother to oblige but she looked back at us and from the look on her face, one mostly of fear, she let open her door.
“Alright, get in. Have it your way.”
The way she switched places to the car ahead, trudging up to the front of the car in her now mud-caked heels, made me worry she had given up all hope, and lost any kind of motherly sanity.
It was at this point my mother began opening the door to the passengers and gesturing them to step outside. One by one the headless faces became visible, and one by one, my mother told, “Get out.”
“You’re too much,” she gestured to one of the heads. “We can’t move with you all in the back like that.”
She started pushing on their backs as they formed a queue around the car.
“Now you guys all get to the back of that wheel. I don’t know what God put you here for, but I sure know that you’re all too damn much on the inside. Start pushing.”
It was the first time I had seen my mother curse. She was smiling to herself as she opened the car door. By then the man with the ponytail let himself inside our car and pushed me to the far back the way he adjusted the driver’s seat.
“Your mother’s got some mouth, ya know that.”
It didn’t make sense for us to respond, but we later told our mother what he said.
By then the group of passengers had been lifting up the back of the red car, like ants marching to the insides of an apple, they appeared and tried to place their hands to back of the car and push. There were three ladies and two men. One had been in the passenger side, and appeared to be related to the driver. She had beachy eyes that squinted at the sight of the cars, now both squealing mud out from the underside.
“Push,” my mother yelled. “Dammit, you guys know anything?”
Her fist rose into the air and pierced the sky that had become a torrent of blue snow. She punched it forward and then punched it again.
At last the car let go. The wheel came loose and the man with no shortage of cursing, screamed damn when my mother skidded the red car onto the paved road.
My mother flung open the car door with an air of accomplishment. Her face had become flushed, but it must have been from the excitement. Seeing her hit pavement, the man rushed our car into park and shut the door with as much force as he did when he entered. He met my mom in the middle of the street and without giving her so much of a handshake or a goodbye, shook his head and opened the car door with his swollen hands, belting at everyone to get back in. They all sped off, the man and his green-eyed friends. In the hazy snowfall I could see the way the group had gotten into the car was the same as before, and just like earlier, they started the similar back-and-forth bobbing of their heads and off onto the highway.
It was then when she stepped back into our car that we could see tears well up and begin to fall down her cheeks, bright red from the cold outside. She looked down at the blue in her veins, her palms, and then raised her head to look out again at the road, this time, an empty one with the snow picking up around the base of the streetlamp.
“I know, I know,” she said. Her voice lowered, her head turned down to her chest once more and she began to repeat in deep whispers. “He's the fool, not me. Not me.”
My brother and I sat in the backseat, and with the snowfall outside us, we climbed to the front of the car, my brother and I both sitting on the passenger seat as my mother turned to look at us. She wiped down my brother’s face, now wet with his own tears.
“I’m not a fool, you know.”
We knew what she meant and as she looked at us, she told us, “You have a choice. Especially you two. You have a choice. Don’t forget that. I can’t.”
We got back into the backseat, pushed out by our mother who said for us to get back to the seat or we’d never get home. We didn’t say anything much the rest of the way home, but when we drove back to Deerland Park, we could see someone waiting in the distance at our doorstep.
I didn’t see exactly what he looked like then, but I could be sure that it was him guarding our door.
“What’d I say?” my mother said.
We were sure that was him, the way he stood with his arms by his side. And, that was the last we really saw of him. My mother kept driving down to the dirt path, and my brother and I sunk back into our seats. I placed my hands on the peas. Still cold. Chicken. Still cold. The cans of chili were cool to the touch, their ridges feeling like some wavy stone. Then I touched the blue glass of our back window to make out the figure standing in front of our door. My brother turned around too and just like that, we both pressed our palms against the cold and waved goodbye.
Clarissa A. León is a Colombian-American writer, journalist, and educator originally from Reno, Nevada and now based in Pittsburgh, PA. She received her MFA from the University of Pittsburgh where she was a Valparaíso Foundation writing resident in Mojácar, Spain, and graduated from the Reynolds School of Journalism in Reno where she was the Robert Laxalt Distinguished Writer.
Clarissa’s work can be found most recently in Aster(ix) Journal where she was the managing editor of the award-winning publication founded by Angie Cruz and Adriana Ramírez. She is an alumna of the VONA/Voices and Lighthouse Writers workshops and has had her work published in Newsweek & The Daily Beast, The Nation, and Salon among many others. Her manuscript-in-progress attempts to answer questions, both personal and political, about belonging, attachment, identity, and home.