If my mother were to take a personality test, the results would read: Male, approximate age: fourteen.
This was evidenced in her knick knacks; a stuffed frog, whose red tipped phallus flopped out when you picked him up, a carved hand, whose erect middle finger wore her rings and a novelty strong man, who peed if you tried to lift him from the shelf. But nothing could set off my mother’s cackle like hearing her third grader tell a joke. Here’s one she taught me to perform for her friends:
Three sailors go into port. They are very excited to go see the whore who lives on the hill because they have heard she does nice things for sailors. The first sailor goes, gives her five dollars and returns with a BIG smile on his face. His friends ask, “What’d she do? What’d she do?” and he says, “Well, she sprayed whipped cream all over my dick and then she licked it off!” (We’re going to cut to the third sailor who gives her fifteen dollars, returns looking sad and explains -) “Well, first she sprayed whipped cream all over my dick and then she sprinkled nuts on it and put a cherry on top.” The other sailors all are, “Yeah, yeah and…?” and the third sailor says, “And, it looked so good I ate it myself.”
I bet you can hear the cackle from there.
Still, my dad never objected (that I knew of) when she would come whisk me away on a road trip. Even if he had, it wouldn’t have mattered; I worshipped her and my life centered around her visits. In the car we’d listen to the same 8-track tapes over and over. I belted all of the words to House of the Raising Sun (Dolly Parton’s version) but when Helen Reddy sang You And Me Against The World, I just sat and tried to hold my shit together. I never succeeded though; Toward the end of the song, I always had my head cranked to the right, pretending to look out the window so she wouldn’t see my wet face. Of course, by the time the little girl voice said, “I love you, mommy” and Helen Reddy said, “I love you too, baby” the snot was flowing, so, she knew. That’s probably why she played it so much.
My mom would drive until it was long dark, then she’d pull over, fold down the Pinto’s rear seats and we’d snuggle up for the night. I loved seeing where we were in the morning, as the terrain would have changed since the last daylight. We’d get out to stretch and pee in the bushes or tumbleweeds then head to a convenience store for breakfast. The meals were one of the best parts of spending time with my mom. Breakfast was Dr. Pepper with Hostess Chocolate Cupcakes. Lunch was Dr. Pepper with bread and peanut butter (you’da thought she’d discovered a scientific phenomenon the way she went on about how easy it was to spread peanut butter when it got hot in the car) and dinner varied, except for the Dr. Pepper.
Occasionally we’d stay at a very cheap hotel and have dinner in a restaurant with the money my dad had given her for my share of the trip. I preferred the car though. At one hotel I asked my mom, “What’s this dark sticky stuff on the bathroom door?” She glanced over and said, “Probably blood.”
When I was in middle school I took a cross country drive with my mom and her third (and fourth, same guy) husband. We drove from El Paso to New York City then down to Biloxi, where the husband got on a plane bound for Greenland. When he wasn’t being an angry drunk he was all right, I guess. He didn’t necessarily have anything to say to me and I definitely felt like a visitor in his back seat, but at least he had the couth to push her chubby hand away when it started riding too high on his stout thigh in the front seat. Also, when I was five, I once kissed him goodbye and stuck my tongue in his mouth, as I’d seen her do. He got upset and told on me. That marked class.
When we finally reached Biloxi we stayed overnight in the barracks of the Air Force base he’d be flying out of. We washed up in the shared bathroom down the hall from our room, which was fine because there was no one else around. My mom and Number Three got the queen bed and I had a twin about four feet away. Less than five minutes after lights out, the whispers and foreplay began. Unfortunately, the pair were perfectly silhouetted, so I was soon treated to the scarring image of a corpulent incubus aloft a rotund succubus, fat legs on high.
Feeling desperate, I got out of bed and fled to the latrine, knowing the room door would lock behind me and they’d have to stop to let me back in. I hung out for a while, pacing along the sinks under bright fluorescent light. Finally, I went back and knocked. Someone opened the door; I didn’t care who. I got in my bed and was relieved to hear the apparition snoring. I bet for another thirty bucks they could have scored two rooms. My dad definitely would have sprung for that.
In the morning they pretended nothing had happened so I made a joke about seeing a moaning ghost hovering in their bed. She cackled, he was embarrassed and humiliated. If you know which is the appropriate response, you’re not my mother. If you have a realistic sense of how long it takes a person to fall asleep, you’re neither one of those chumps.
When I was twenty my mother and I took our final road trip together. Not final because she died, but final because I couldn’t stand her anymore. The only reason I went was because she was heading to Portland, Oregon to track down her oldest son and I wanted to see my boyfriend in Seattle. Plus she had money to burn from her most recent divorce (from Number Five) so she was paying. It hadn’t entirely occurred to me that my big brother, who hadn’t spoken to his mom for over ten years, might not be thrilled to hear from us. I was the only one from our family that he’d invited to his wedding six years before but even I’d lost touch with him. We pulled into Portland at night and she made me call him from a payphone. I’d begun to wonder if leaving all of us was the only way he felt he could get away from her. I suddenly knew it, though, when we pulled up to the address he gave me and I saw his figure sitting on a step in the dark. I felt the weight of the phone call he’d just received. I felt guilty and wished I could turn the car around, turn the clock back an hour and leave him in the relative peace of his life away. I do believe that the return of my mother into his world marked the onset of that brother’s decline.
My brother and sister-in-law were gracious and my mother over-stayed our welcome. Two weeks later we headed back to El Paso after my brother convinced me to go home, pack up and move to Portland. His mom had decided to move there too so, inevitably, she and I would be roommates. I would share a roof with my mother for the first time since I was four years old.
Our drive back to El Paso did not bode well for the impending living arrangement. I was so out of my head miserable by the time we reached Vegas that she had put me on a plane. The ticket was funded by my dad, who understood the importance of getting the hell away from her. In that same vein, Pop would, four months later, fully support me in moving to Seattle from Portland to shack up with my black boyfriend out of wedlock.
Tragically without clue, my mother has managed to drive everyone away, some to other realms. My dad (Number Two) used to nurse my mommy-wounds with, “Don’t worry, sweetheart, she’ll get hers; What goes around comes around.” And other stale chestnuts. But, as I knew at the time, a sick, scared and lonely old woman in the final scene, does not give good schadenfreude, not in theory, and not in reality.