Kate crossed the street in front of her mother’s house carrying a backpack with the things she would need (schoolbooks, two changes of clothing, jacket, make-up, pajamas) during her court-mandated, every-other-weekend stay.
Her mother’s smiling face appeared at the window of the front door as soon as her finger pressed the doorbell. Annoyed that she was hovering in the foyer waiting for her to arrive, Kate walked past her into the living room, collapsing heavily on the flowered loveseat before she had a chance to give Kate a hello hug.
Her mother stood anxiously in front of her, her hips gently swaying as she shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “It’s so good to see you, Katie!” she said.
Kate stared up at her as the thought of spending a whole weekend away from her friends flickered across her mind. She took a deep breath and said, “So what do you want to do?”
She surprised Kate by responding, “I’d like us to go out to dinner with a friend of mine.”
Kate’s curiosity was peaked. With raised eyebrows, she asked, “What friend?”
Her mother’s eyes drifted to a bronze plate depicting a nineteenth century clipper ship that was hanging on the paneled wall above her head and said, “Oh, he used to work with your dad at the factory.”
He? Kate sat forward in her seat and said, “Are you dating this guy?”
With a self-conscious smile, she said, “We get together for dinner and a drink once a week.” Her eyes, now shining brightly, remained fixated above Kate’s head.
Intrigued by this new development, Kate decided to forget her self-pity for the time being. “When is he picking us up?”
Her gaze returned to her daughter’s face. “He just lives a few blocks from here. I thought we’d walk over to his house.”
Kate hesitated, and then nodded. “Okay. When did you want to leave?”
Her mother beamed, ringing her hands and swaying. “Oh, anytime. He’s home right now if you want to get going.”
She glanced at her watch: quarter to five. A little early for dinner, but what else was there to do? She stood and picked up her bag. “All right, just let me put my stuff in the bedroom.”
Striding across the living room and through the hallway, Kate ran up the carpeted stairs to the smaller of the two bedrooms. The room always reminded her of her grandmother’s house since it was furnished with a bedroom set her mother had shipped from New York after her grandmother’s death. Dark wood antiques adorned with white lace doilies were in sharp contrast to the pale yellow walls. She glanced out of the narrow window next to the bed, to the empty street below. Although it was late afternoon, the September sun showed no signs of decreasing its intensity.
She patted the back pocket of her jeans to make sure the twenty dollars she had carelessly shoved inside hadn’t fallen out. Then she turned and stepped in front of the vanity, placidly eyeing her reflection. She was tempted to apply a little make-up, and then decided against it; this was, after all, only one of her father’s friends and her mother’s new beau. She smiled at the concept of her mother actually dating someone besides her father. She wondered if they were having sex, then quickly dismissed the disturbing thought from her sixteen-year-old mind. Pulling her rumpled jacket out of her bag, she crossed the hall and headed back down the narrow staircase. When she entered the living room, she found it empty; then the tinny clang of metal drew her to the kitchen, where her mother was scrubbing a roasting pan.
She looked up from her task when she heard her daughter approach. “Are you ready to go?” she asked with an expectant smile.
Her mother rinsed off the pan and placed it delicately on top of the dishes that were stacked in the plastic rack next to the sink. Then she dried her hands with a faded dish towel while her eyes flitted across the tops of the table, counter and stove. She replaced the towel on its hook and heaved a dramatic sigh. “All righty. Just let me grab my pocketbook.”
She marched past Kate, who fell into step behind her. Her pace slowed momentarily as she bent to grasp the handles of her overfilled purse and without a backward glance, she strode to the front door.
“Are you taking a coat with you?” Kate asked.
Her mother turned toward her, her facial features subtly adjusting themselves into a worried frown. “Yes…yes, I think I should take my raincoat,” she replied slowly.
“Where is it?”
“I keep it in the wardrobe.”
Kate turned and moved to stand in front of the brown metal cabinet lurking in the far corner of the dining room. She pulled on a handle and the metal door opened with a piercing whine. The cabinet was packed with clothes; sandwiched between her mother’s garments, she recognized two tops she had worn as a child. She brushed her hands along varying textures and colors of cloth until she located the pale green coat, wedged tightly between a pill-ridden sweater and a long denim skirt. She pulled it out and closed the door, joining her mother in the foyer. She was twisting the lock above the doorknob while pushing her weight against it; the stubborn locking mechanism eventually relented with a soft click. Handing over the coat, Kate wondered, not for the first time, whether the Social Security and rent money her mother received left any extra at the end of the month for replacing a worn out lock, or any of the thousand little things in a house needing repair from time to time.
Kate followed her out of the house and down the steps. Across the street, the late afternoon sun painted an orange glaze across the backs of the store buildings. They walked to the end of the block and crossed the street, passing a row of ornately painted two-story houses shaded by massive oak trees. As they continued their journey along the idyllic neighborhood, she spared a furtive glance to her right and left, then concentrated on the floral pattern of her mother’s blouse, feeling exposed and vulnerable to prying eyes that might be watching their progress from behind sheer curtains.
They crossed another street and her mother slowed her pace until they stopped in front of a stately yellow brick house with white trim. Kate was impressed; she had expected a house similar to the one she and her father lived in, for some reason, but this residence was three times the size of their cottage-style home. Kate’s Aunt Nina, who was her mother’s older sister, had once told her that her family was lower middle class. Her aunt’s statement had been news to Kate, who had, until that moment, considered her family to be basically the same as her second grade classmates’ families. Since then, she had become more aware of the differences — financial and other — and had decided a few years ago “the other side of the tracks” was a more fitting description because it added a dysfunctional element that “lower middle class” didn’t adequately convey.
She followed her mother up the walkway to the front door. The heavy metal knocker met the wood with a metallic thud. Almost immediately, Kate saw a dark shape moving behind one of the narrow stained-glass windows framing both sides of the door. Click, click, went the lock and the door swung open to reveal a smallish man, dressed in gray dress slacks and a black shirt. Kate hadn’t seen her father in anything except work pants and a tee shirt, other than the handful of times they had attended church. The man’s coal-black hair glistened with a generous lacquering of gel; his facial features seemed vaguely Italian, but Kate couldn’t be certain, since his eyes were distorted by thickly lensed glasses encased in black plastic frames.
He nodded in greeting at Kate’s smiling mother and, looking past her, said, “So Sofia, this must be your lovely daughter. I’m Rocky.” His voice was soft, with a deep, melodic quality that resonated pleasantly in her ears. He extended his outstretched hand in her direction. After the briefest hesitation, she stared into his tinted lenses and reached her hand out as well, feeling his moist palm press gently into hers.
“I’m Kate,” she mumbled, letting her arm return to her side.
He nodded and smiled. “Why don’t you come in and relax for a few minutes before we head out to the restaurant?” He stepped to the side of the doorway to allow her and her mother to walk past him into the foyer; then he ushered them into the adjoining living room. “Please, have a seat,” he said, sweeping his arm vaguely in front of him.
Following his gesture, her eyes settled on a velvet sofa flanked by two matching wing-backed chairs facing an ornate fireplace. Porcelain figurines were artfully arranged on top of the mantle. She crossed the room to the chair farthest from the door and sat down.
“What would you ladies like? Sofia, would you like a glass of wine?”
“Yes, I’d like red wine please,” she said, nodding vigorously. Her voice was timid and childlike.
“Kate? I have pop and lemonade; I can make you coffee if you like…”
“Um, lemonade would be great. Thank you.”
“Okay. I’ll be right back — don’t get up! I’ll just be a minute.”
Her mother remained perched on the edge of the sofa, as if, at any moment, she would be summoned to the kitchen by a frantic Rocky, who was in sudden, dire need of her drink-pouring expertise.
Kate looked around the room with interest. The furniture was similar in style to furnishings in her grandmother’s house, though as a whole, the items had more of an antique feel, rather than what Kate thought of as “geriatric ambiance” that permeated the homes of the few elderly people she knew. The high ceilings were framed by white crown molding, the walls painted a tasteful cream. Gold-framed pictures in varying sizes, though mainly portraying rolling hills or forests surrounding babbling brooks, looked like they had actually been painted by someone. And the Persian rug, in the standard red, was in much better condition than the faded, threadbare one in Mavis Johnson’s sitting room. Miss Johnson was a seventy-eight-year-old spinster with failing eyesight that her mother had talked her into doing chores for once a week for a few hours after school. She lived alone in a tiny house with a white picket fence across the street from the junior high. Although Kate didn’t mind the vacuuming and shopping trips, she was beginning to dread the hair washing, in spite of the twenty dollars she earned monthly for her trouble.
Rocky reappeared, carrying a silver tray that he set carefully on the low marble coffee table in front of the sofa. As he handed her mother her wine glass, Kate noticed the third drink on the tray. Warning bells sounded in the back of her mind; the amber liquid in Rocky’s glass was undoubtedly liquor, with nothing to dilute it but a single ice cube. He handed her the glass filled with lemonade. She took a sip, pursing her lips at its tartness, and set the glass on the coffee table.
Kate half-listened to his stories about his son, who was married and living in Indianapolis. She listened more intently, however, when he began describing his encounters with her father, which revolved mainly around one of the three local bars and one fight or another that her father had gotten into over the years. As late afternoon passed into early evening and he had polished off his second drink, her initial impression, that her mother’s new beau was vastly different from her father, had changed.
Rocky stood up, resting his hand on the corner of the mantle. “Okay, ladies, I think it’s time we get going.”
Kate stood up woodenly, allowing herself to be ushered out of the house and into an older model Cadillac. She fastened her seatbelt tightly and braced her hands against the seat on either side of her thighs; the action was automatic after so many years of being a passenger in a vacillating vehicle.
They drove through Cooper without incident. When the houses became scarce and the fields more plentiful, Kate began to relax, figuring the likelihood of plowing into someone’s living room, or another car, for that matter, had greatly diminished for the time being.
Another twenty minutes went by, and then she saw the dark shape of a building on a hill in the distance. Momentarily, the shape took on form and color; it was a barn-like structure painted in rich golden yellow with scarlet red accents. A few seconds later, she was able to make out the words scrolled ornately on the side: The Golden Nugget Saloon and Restaurant. The Cadillac slowed and turned into the gravel lot next to the building. Kate stared at the back of her mother’s headrest, listening to the crunching sound of the gravel under the tires as they parked in front of a wooden fence pretending to be a hitching post. She muscled open the heavy steel door, sliding along the vinyl seat until she was able to hoist her body out of the vehicle. Then she followed silently behind the couple, who were engaged in a conversation she couldn’t quite make out. Her mother giggled over something; then Rocky opened the front door and gestured gallantly that they should enter before him.
Kate found herself inside a dark foyer. In front of her was a long bar with a red vinyl bumper and matching stools, flanked on either side by a dining area. Glowing lanterns and white tablecloths on each square table added an element of coziness to the atmosphere. A waitress dressed in a frilly red and gold skirt bustled up to them and said, “Ya having cocktails or dinner this evening?”
“Dinner,” Rocky replied.
The waitress nodded and pulled three menus out of a rack attached to the side of a wooden podium. “Right this way, folks,” she said.
Kate listened to the woman’s nylon-encased thighs rubbing together as she ushered them to a booth along the back wall. She slid into the seat ahead of her mother, careful not to disturb the wood-framed pictures of cowboys during the Gold Rush days that hung on the wall next to her shoulder. Opening the red faux leather menu, she scanned the headings until she found the entrée section. She traced her index finger down the page, eventually deciding on the Petite top sirloin and baked potato with butter and chives.
“Can I get you something to drink while you’re readin’ through the menu?”
Kate looked up at the waitress, who was smiling expectantly in her direction, her pen poised over a green order pad. “A Coke?”
Without hesitation, she said, “Pepsi okay, hon?”
Kate shrugged. “Sure.”
Her gaze moved to Kate’s mother, who was still fixated on her menu. “Ma’am, can I get you something to drink?” she asked.
Her mother’s head snapped up and her eyes fluttered in surprise. “Just coffee…with cream please.”
The waitress nodded, jotting the items on her pad. Before she had turned toward Rocky, he said, “I’ll have a shot of your house whiskey on the rocks.”
Without looking up, she nodded and jotted. “Okay, folks, I’ll be right back.”
Kate glanced in her mother’s direction, but her profile showed no signs of distress over her boyfriend’s beverage order.
The waitress returned almost immediately with their drinks. She took their dinner orders, and then hurried off to assist a customer who was vying for her attention on the other side of the room.
While they waited for their meals to arrive, Kate studied the photographs on the wall and gave monosyllabic answers to Rocky’s questions about school and her interests. Then the waitress returned, both arms loaded down with steaming platters. Rocky had ordered another whiskey before the woman had placed Kate’s plate in front of her. While they ate, he beckoned twice more to their waitress.
By the time they had decided to leave, he was having difficulty forming sentences. When the waitress returned to their table with the bill, he spent several moments pondering it, then fumbled in his pocket for his wallet and handed her several twenties, making a shooing motion with his fingers and slurring that she should keep the change. A moment later, he stood and stumbled, thrusting his hand out just in time to grab the edge of a neighboring table. Once he was again standing upright, he took hold of her mother’s hand and led her unsteadily out of the restaurant. Kate lagged a sizable distance behind them, lost in the memory of too many car rides with a drunk behind the wheel.
When they reached the Cadillac, Rocky turned toward her and said, “Okay uh, Kathy, time for your first driving lesson. Get in.” His arm extended toward the driver’s side door.
She stared at him for a moment in disbelief. Then her eyes shot past him to her mother, who was hovering behind him. She smiled reassuringly at her daughter, as though Rocky’s request were a simple matter that couldn’t possibly end up killing them all.
Kate’s feet remained rooted in place. She watched Rocky and her mother walk slowly around the car to the passenger side. Her mother continued to smile, giving her a final encouraging nod before ducking through the back seat door her boyfriend had opened for her.
Her heart was pounding in her chest and her breathing became difficult. To endure riding in a vehicle with someone who was intoxicated was stressful and worrisome, but it was something she was accustomed to. To be ordered to drive a car for the first time in her life, however, was terrifying.
After Rocky had climbed into the front seat, she willed her legs to move to the driver’s side door, where she rested her fingers on the handle and froze.
Rocky stared blearily at her through the windshield for a few moments, and then made a beckoning motion with his hand. “Oh, come on. It’s just a little drive in the country, that’s all. I’ll take over when we get to town.” His voice sounded muffled through the glass.
Kate nodded slowly, then squeezed the handle and pulled. The door seemed heavier than she remembered. She climbed in next to Rocky, slamming the door shut behind her. The dashboard was a confusing display of dials and controls. The only one she understood was the speedometer.
“Okay, first you have to move the seat a little closer so you can reach the pedals.”
She looked doubtfully at the man seated on her right, but then ran her hand along the side of the seat until she felt the lever. She tried moving it in a few directions until she felt it yield. Then she pushed her feet against the floor, coaxing the seat as far forward as it would go. Leaning her head sideways, she saw a narrow pedal on the right and a larger pedal in the middle of the floor. She rested a foot on each one, staring straight ahead.
“The pedal on the right’s for the gas and the other one’s the brake. Just use your right foot, not both, got it?”
Yes…no…she wasn’t ready for this. Her knuckles turned white as she gripped the steering wheel to steady her trembling hands. Rocky inserted the key into the ignition and twisted. The engine roared and Kate’s nerves leaped out of her skin.
“You’re doing just fine, young lady.”
Fine? The Cadillac hadn’t moved an inch yet.
“Now take your right foot and press down on the brake, then move the shifter until the red line is on the R.”
She went over his previous instructions in her head and tentatively pushed on the middle pedal, which took more strength than she had anticipated. Then she carefully moved the lever, while staring intently at the thin red line until it bisected the R.
“Okay, now look behind you to make sure there’s no cars, and slowly let up on the brake.” His speech had become clearer, as though the responsibility of talking her through her first driving experience had induced a state of pseudo-sobriety.
She did exactly as she was told, and the car eased backward. In the rear view mirror, she saw the reflection of taillights against a white fence post. She quickly applied pressure to the petal and the car eased to a stop. She exhaled.
“Now move the shifter to the D, then take your foot off the brake and give it some gas. You’ll need to turn the wheel a little to the left so we end up over there instead of driving through the front door of the restaurant.”
She looked in the direction of his pointed index finger, where the driveway opened onto the paved two-lane highway. Her eyes followed the road to the dimming horizon; a semi-truck was progressing slowly toward them in the distance. Her heart began to race. She shifted, turned the wheel slightly, and lifted her foot. The car crawled forward, making a shallow turn until the hood was in line with the driveway entrance. She smiled to herself: now all I have to do is drive to the edge of the driveway and stop. Once I’m on the highway, I’ll be fine.
She moved her right foot over the gas petal and pushed. But unlike the stubborn brake, it instantly hit the floor and the Cadillac shot forward. Her brain was screaming at her to brake but her foot refused to react, while the tires spewed gravel in every direction, filling the air with dust. She thought she heard shouts in the distance, but the roar of the engine and the pounding of her heart engulfed her in a deafening tidal wave of sound. The highway was careening toward her and then her left foot found the brake and she pushed with all her might, while lifting her right foot at the same time. The car lurched to a stop and another roar — the sound of the semi’s engine as it flew past them — filled her ears.
“My name is Kate,” she said in a small voice made louder by the silence, and closed her eyes.