can take the highway home, or the back roads,” Mom told us, pointing ahead through the windshield of our old black and
white Nash Metropolitan.
We all shouted “the back roads!” My two little sisters, Beth and Megan, were in the rear seat, bouncing with the bumps,
the wind blowing their curly red hair into their eyes and mouths. I was up front
with Mom, watching the paint in the middle of the road. Mom was always explaining
about the road - what double yellow meant, and single white. By the time I was
ten, I had a good idea what driving was all about. When I got the chance, I’d
sneak out to the car, sit in the driver’s seat, and jiggle the steering wheel.
My feet barely reached the pedals, but it didn’t matter. I’d
drive farther and farther away from home, visiting places I’d never seen—only heard of. I drove eighty with my arm out the window along the straight and narrow highways of the Great Plains chasing
tornados. I sped along dangerous winding roads, up and down mountains, around
hairpin turns with drop-offs down to distant rocky rivers where bear and coyote wandered - and probably old Indians were hiding. I traveled all the way to California, and the Pacific Ocean, and then turned around
and came home again. I always bought gas for the Nash at the Texaco station at
the corner of my best friend’s street and the road to school. Well, at
least Mom let me give the money to the man who wore the star. I liked the way
he kept an oily rag tucked in his back pocket, then yanked it out fast when he checked under the hood. He had black grease under his fingernails and in his fingerprints.
He didn’t smell like my Dad - who wore red Old Spice - he smelled unusual, like oil and heat.
I didn’t like school very much back then. I
had to walk back and forth to Jefferson Elementary two times every day - on the sidewalk with big cracks and weeds - no matter
what kind of weather, because Dad took the car to work, and Mom stayed home. She’d
fix lunch at the house for us - mostly peanut butter - because all the kids got sent home at noon to eat. That was before they built the cafeteria. When it rained,
she’d pull these awful red rubber boots out of the front hall closet - and that meant we had to wear them to school. Sometimes, it wasn’t even raining, but Mom thought it might, by the way the
clouds and wind looked, and she’d get the boots out. Not only that, but
we had these stinky vinyl rain coats with hoods that Mom bought at JC Penny. Mine
never fit. On me, clothes were always too big when Mom bought them, “because
you’ll grow into them,” she said, or too small - after a bit of growing - because “it wasn’t time
to do the clothes shopping yet.”
The afternoon that the four of us took the back roads, I remember the sun was
hot, and there was a bead of sweat rolling down Mom’s face, before she wiped it away with a crinkled tissue. Mom’s long silky hair was pulled back in a ponytail, but some of the shorter ends blew across her
face because the windows were down. Beth and Megan were crazy in the backseat,
pushing each other around, tugging on each other’s clothes and hair, screeching and giggling. Mom let me tune in some stations on the radio, to see if I could find something we liked. She said to stop when I got this snarly voice singing, “I like smoke and lightening.” She sang the words she knew, and hummed when she didn’t; then at the refrain,
we all sang, “Born to be wild,” at the top of our lungs; even Beth and Megan got into it.
Mom really preferred classical music, though, especially Mozart.
When Beth and Megan took their afternoon naps, Mom would stand in front of the shelf where she kept all her records,
and try to figure out what she was in the mood to hear - sometimes a symphony, sometimes a sonata. Then she’d carefully slide the record out of its sleeve -only touching the edges - put it on the
turntable, and gently lower the needle with her finger. She’d always pull
the living room shades down, lie on the couch, and shut her eyes. I wouldn’t
bother her. I’d do something else, like pick out a coloring book, and sit
at the kitchen table where there was light. I always loved the waxy smell of
my big box of crayons, but hated the way the tips broke off - or the way Beth and Megan broke them. I carefully peeled the paper off the damaged ones, and used the sharpener in the box to make new points. I filled the empty black drawings in my books full of my favorite colors: cadet blue,
lemon yellow, and brick red. I could stay inside the lines pretty well even then.
If I wasn’t in the mood for coloring, and it was nice out, I’d
play with my Tonka truck and cars. Santa gave me the truck for Christmas when
I was five - the same year I got my cowboy guns and holsters, and Wonder Horse. That
spring, I used Mom’s gardening tools to dig out the grass under the tree in the front yard - to make roads for my truck;
I made neighborhoods with smaller roads and parking lots for my matchbox cars. I
had a shoebox of those - maybe ten cars in all. My Tonka truck, though, was a
blue pickup, and the tailgate had a hinge that really worked. I made mud pits,
and drove through them, with the bed full of rocks and sticks, and then I’d spray the dirt off with the leaky hose -
the same hose my Dad used to wash the Nash on weekends if he was home. He had
a busy job at his company, and I didn’t get to see much of him back then.
But I’m forgetting to tell you
about the ride; it’s so easy to get distracted, and think of other things. We
kept driving past one farm after another. After a while, each one looked and
smelled just about as bad as the next one. I could see the road shimmering ahead
of us, and Mom said it was a mirage - what people saw in the desert when they were dying of thirst. We’d been out to Aunt Leslie and Uncle Bert’s house earlier that day, while my Dad stayed home
to do something - but I don’t remember what - he might’ve still been in bed when we left. My aunt and uncle lived near a lake and had a small apple orchard.
They had a huge German Shepard named Baxter - who was tied up on a long chain in front of his doghouse where it was
dusty - and two goldfinches in the kitchen inside a wire cage. After lunch, Mom
and Aunt Leslie said they needed to talk - Uncle Bert was outside working on the tractor - and they’d tossed me and
my sisters outside to play - and that was fine with me, because there was a fun barn to explore behind the farmhouse. It was dark and creepy inside, and you could see the sky and clouds through cracks
in the roof and the lake through gaps in the walls. There was sawdust on the
ground. There were all kinds of hard rusty tools hanging from hooks. There was some rope. Aunt Leslie had told us to keep our eyes
peeled for a cat, because she remembered she’d seen a stray, and thought it might’ve had kittens - and we were
all excited about that. Beth and Megan looked everywhere, even under the front
porch, but none of us found any hint of a cat. In my opinion, it would’ve
been a crazy cat to hang around Baxter’s house.
Mom squinted at
the fuel gauge, and said we had to buy gas, so we stopped at the next station we came to.
They had a Coke machine out front, in the shade. I asked, and Mom gave
me a dime to put in myself, and I pulled hard with both hands to get the cold bottle out.
Mom got one for Beth and Megan to share, and then she asked if she could have a sip of mine. Of course, I gave it to her. Mom glanced at her watch, then
looked up at the sky, and said, “Maybe we should’ve taken the highway.”
But I didn’t know what she meant, because I didn’t think it was late.
(I didn’t have a watch, but I knew how to tell time. I was in the
fifth grade. I knew how to do a lot of things - I could read past my grade level,
and knew long division). We all climbed back into the car, and Mom didn’t
say anything else about the highway - she just asked to keep the radio off, when I reached for the knob. I said, “ok,” and finished my coke. I was starting
to feel hungry, but I didn’t say anything about that to Mom. She kept wiping
her face, and her tissue was getting all shredded. I wasn’t too hot, because
I had shorts and a tee shirt on. I was wearing my blue Keds sneakers, and my
toes were poking through the rubber tops. I could see the white socks through
the holes when I wiggled my big toes. Plus, there was a good breeze blowing through
the car with all the windows down - so I wasn’t hot at all, really.
seemed to be thinking harder than usual - she wasn’t talking, and I was worried I’d done something wrong, and
upset her. (Normally she’d talk about what she was planning to make for
dinner, and ask my opinion). I saw the white needle against the black background
on the speedometer climbing up past fifty. (The last number on the dial was eighty). Mom never drove too fast, especially on winding country roads. We flew past one place with an old grain silo that was rusty and leaning against the barn. The cows were all lying down in the field, their tails swishing flies.
I remember Mom always said that it meant it was going to rain soon. Most
of the time, I liked sitting in the front seat because I could see so much; Beth and Megan were too little to come up front,
but they still yelled at me about it anyway. They were only five then. Did I tell you that they were identical twins? Because there’s
two kinds of twins. Sometimes they’d play tricks and swap names to confuse
people. They tried it on Mom sometimes, and she’d play along, but she always
knew who was who.
After a while, Beth and Megan were quiet, and I guess they must’ve fallen asleep, because they
were both leaning against each other with their mouths open. I was thinking that
it seemed to be darker ahead, kind of black in the sky. Mom was holding onto
the steering wheel harder, in the “ten and two o’clock” position.
Her fingers were tight, and her elbows were locked. Then Mom said, “Hold
on…” and didn’t finish her sentence.
were in the middle of a blinding, deafening downpour, and I couldn’t see through the windshield, even with the wipers
on. It sounded like hundreds of sharp rocks were pelting the car. Beth and Megan woke up, crying and screaming in the back seat. Mom
yelled, “Kit, roll your window up,” and she cranked hers up fast. “Just
a cloudburst,” Mom said, still gripping the wheel. She slowed down, I felt
the Nash braking, and I felt like I might slide into the dashboard, so I braced myself.
Mom’s right arm came up fast in front of me, to hold me back, and that was the only time she didn’t have
both hands on the steering wheel. Then, I couldn’t see anything at all
except a flash, like when Dad used the camera too close. There was a huge cracking
noise all around us, and I didn’t see anything, but we must have hit something, because just before, I heard Mom, but
I don’t remember what she said. I don’t remember anything else, until
help came, and I don’t remember how long it took.
kept ripping into my eyes, and then flickering red and blue lights mixed into all that.
I wanted to keep my eyes open, but I couldn’t make them stay open. There
was sharp stuff all over my head and face and arms and I tried to wipe it off, but it was stuck. I was hot wet everywhere. It was tugging in my chest to breathe. Beth and Megan were still crying, but they were far away, and then I didn’t
hear them anymore, and I didn’t know where they were. I thought I heard
Mom, but I couldn’t tell. The radio was blaring, but it was distorted and
ugly, and there were loud cracks of thunder every minute or so - I’m not sure how long the minutes were. There were men’s voices, and some yelling, like Dad. Then
there was a screechy noise, and banging, and maybe glass breaking, and then I felt rocking back and forth. Someone said he was getting me out. Someone else said to hold
still. And that’s all I remember of that part, because I must have fallen
I was under a big bright silver light, and they put a blue
cloth on top of me. It was hot breathing under that. A strange voice said, “hold still,” and I didn’t move.
It felt like needles in my head. They slid something cold and hard under
me, and said, “hold your breath.” So I held it. But I was shivering, and I think I fell asleep again.
a lady with wrinkles and a white hat floated above me, and she had a watch pinned to her uniform that moved when she breathed
- I could see the second hand twitching. She wrapped something tight around my
arm, and squeezed. There was a shiny bottle swinging from the ceiling. There was a loud noise, like metal trays. People were coughing,
I think. There were chrome bars next to my head, and a screen with shadows moving. There was a trapeze over me. I threw
up, the lady turned my head, and there was a bowl there. There was a funny pain
in my chest and legs. There were muffled voices, far away. I couldn’t stay awake anymore.
The first person
I knew was Dad; when he came, I heard his voice, and knew it was him, so far away. He
said everything was fine, and tried to smile, and I felt his whiskers when he kissed me on the cheek, but I couldn’t
move. I couldn’t talk - my throat hurt to breathe, and I didn’t know
why. There was hard plastic inside my nose and throat. Dad vanished after a second, and I wasn’t even sure he’d been there. The lights were too bright and dizzy for my eyes, and I shut them.
Then, later, a man’s voice said he was going to change something on my leg. And I think I was relieved about that. There were beeping
noises all the time. Women’s voices, and coffee cups. Some gurgling noise behind my head, a swooshing sound.
Mom came in. She was in a chair with big wheels, and wore a white nightgown. She had a white towel across her lap. There
was a clear bottle on a pole over her head too, and her arm was bent. Both of
her eyes were purple and swollen like plums. Mom had a turban on. Her cheeks had cat scratches all over them. She said everything
was fine. I still couldn’t move, or talk, and I wanted to hold her hand,
but they took her away, and pulled the screen around me. Everything was white
A man with a stethoscope and dark whiskers came in later -
maybe another day - and said that he was there to take the tube out, and let me try “breathing” on my own. He asked the nurse to help. She cranked
up the head of my bed. I was afraid of him, and didn’t want him to touch
me without Mom there. The nurse held my arms.
When he pulled the tube out, I coughed and coughed, and thought I was going to throw up again, but nothing happened. I still couldn’t talk. He gave
me a noisy mask to wear, and said it would help. Then he left. The nurse said I could try jello later if I wanted to. But
I didn’t feel like eating. I watched the water dripping down the tubes
into my arms, and counted the drops until I fell asleep.
Then there were
two of them, in white coats, with surgeon’s scrubs. I started to know who
was who by what they wore - I must’ve been there for weeks by then. Mom
came to see me one or two times a day, and said she was feeling fine, and soon she’d be able to spend more time with
me. Her eyes weren’t so purple anymore, just red. The doctors always looked at my legs. One was in traction,
and I was hooked up by ropes and pulleys to the bed. I had to pee in a plastic
jug. I don’t want to tell you what they made me do for number 2. The other leg was all wrapped up in bandages, and hurt all the time.
The nurse gave me a shot if I said it hurt too much, but I didn’t want the shot, because she jabbed it into my
rear end, and it felt like I was sitting on hot bees after that. The doctors
told the nurses what to do, what to get, and where to put it. They kept changing
bandages. And I knew what they were up to, because I could see them out in the
hall, pushing the tray with supplies, heading for my room.
One day, the
doctors stood outside my door, talking to my Dad before he came in to visit. He
shook his head up and down, and seemed kind of slumpy, even in his suit. Dad
told me that they needed to do something to help me get better. My leg wasn’t
healing properly, and they had to help it. I said that it was fine, only it hurt
sometimes, thinking they meant the broken leg, in traction. But Dad said, no,
it was the other leg.
No one ever told me exactly what they were going
to do. I was only ten, but I knew things, even then. I never saw Mom that day, only Dad. He had to sign something,
he said, and left my room.
It’s not that I mind so much what happened,
just how it happened. And that’s how I got this plastic leg. When I’m old enough, though, Dad says I can get a driver’s license, but for now, I can still
drive the Nash across the continent with my eyes closed, and that’s all right with me.
Deborah Vatcher is a physician who practices near Boston, and the publisher of the web log GRITTYBITS.COM
Copyright © 2004 –
Deborah A. Vatcher, MD [ used with permission ]