LEARNING TO DRIVE
I was nine when Mom dragged me from Las Vegas to live with relatives in rural Oklahoma. With Child Protective Services and an angry rental attendant at her heels, she escaped across state lines, hollering at me: “Keep that attitude in check and we won’t have to move again! All that open space for you to burn off steam. You better listen and keep that mouth of yours shut!” I had never lived beyond the cradle of that neon desert, and my only exposure to the middle of the country were photos of cow pasture and a blue Lincoln Continental stuffed inside a book wrapped in puffy fabric and fraying ribbon. We packed a small U-Haul and crossed the San Juan Mountains to a land so flat I avoided windows, afraid people from miles away could spy on me.
We spent the night in Kingman and stopped at an Indian Reservation to buy me a dream catcher. I hung it from the rear view mirror, the beads glittering in the sun, the wind from the open window fanning its gray and brown feathers; my mom clutched at the wheel with her good hand, cursing every time the truck fought against her advances. “This sonofabitch governor! I’ll be in the fucking grave before we get there!” Later, when we returned the U-Haul, the sales associate winked down at me and asked if I had enjoyed myself.
“Yep. But my mom didn’t. She was having trouble with the government.”
We arrived at night. The red brick house glowed yellow, wild bushes and a concrete porch at the entrance, a snorting Pekingese yipping at my grandma’s feet. It had been years since I saw Grandma, a short, bald woman with magnifying glasses and lipstick smeared on her dentures. Our relationship had revolved around the Halloween costumes she sewed me every year. The costumes never failed to disappoint: when I asked to be Pocahontas from the Disney movie, she created a potato sack with red ribbon and beaded headband with a single feather sticking up in the back. When I asked to be Poison Ivy from the newest Batman movie, she deemed it too sexy and made me Raggedy Ann. Red yarn wig, baggy pants and a patchy blouse, all left in the shipping box; I threw on a Scream mask instead and stormed my apartment complex, my breath hot on my face, slicing at the younger kids with a plastic knife.
The living room was dusty and empty, only a shadow in passing. Grandma had set up camp at the dining room table, television and couch crammed in a space suitable for a small family meal. Newspapers and mail crowded the tiny, circular surface, crusty plastic plates and empty soda cans scattered on the floor. Books and more paper stacked on the couch, just enough space cleared for Grandma to fit. The floral fabric was cigarette-burned, a white circle pressed into the cushion from her weight.
Grandma put a finger to her lips, peering down at me. “Your great grandma is asleep. She is old and her heart can’t handle much. If you don’t behave, she will die.”
I crushed the sewing magazine beneath my sneaker.
Grandma led us down the skinny hallway, faces of people I had never seen lining the wall. She pointed out the bedroom where Mom and I would sleep, every corner piled with videocassettes and old dolls, dressers of various sizes topped with high-collared blouses, wool child coats, faded and misshaped snapbacks. Mom would have to slide up from the foot of the bed, unable to squeeze into the little space between mattress and materials.
The door to Grandma’s room was ajar. Inside, a small twin bed and sewing machine, all hidden beneath swollen garage bags, layers of dress patterns, magazines, paperbacks with their pages all crumbled and water-stained, and an army of coffee rimmed mugs on a pile of quilts. Later, when I couldn’t sleep, I snuck down the hallway to see Grandma sleeping on top of it all, her bald head cradled by a plastic bag.
All these things to keep Grandma company in the house she had grown up and now took care of her dying mother. For my family, open corners led to thoughts of inferiority and loneliness, and when Grandma peered at all her handmade collections overflowing her shelves and drawers she felt full on the inside.
Behind me was the door to Great Grandma’s room. The wood seemed to tremble in its frame, a faint ghostly noise spilling from its hinges. Was the noise a murmuring fan or the slapping blinds from an open window? I listened closer. I heard scratching on the plywood, or maybe it was Great Grandma tapping her yellow nails impatiently on her bedside table, waiting for me to end the long hot days of her failing heart.
Mom was a cripple.
The only job she could get was ringing bell for the Salvation Army during Christmas time. Standing in front of Walmart or Lucky’s, she chatted with customers and vagrants, her cropped hair dyed blonde or red, styled like the hairdos of Princess Diana with help from hairspray and pick.
Before Mom had a stroke at 29, she cocktail-waitressed, snorted miles of coke, and chased diet pills with shots at the bar before shifts. She blamed the diet pills for the stroke; she blamed the casinos for the diet pills. She stepped on a scale every month in front of her bosses and was under contract to keep her weight down. She sashayed around ringing slot machines, carrying drinks and dollar bills, the sharp corset of her costumes stealing her breath; she floated through parties and teetered on her lack of significance, each high elevating her above the men who shoved dollars between her breasts and told her not to be so shy.
She described the stroke to me once. Back then, the doctors couldn’t do anything for her condition, and they left her on a metal slab to ride out the paralysis. Why not a hospital bed? “Easier cleanup,” she said. “Already rolling my ass to the morgue. No hope. They said I would never speak again. Never walk again. Your mom sure showed them!” It took years of physical therapy for her to learn to walk again and her right hand would always be in the position of holding a piece of paper.
In Grandma’s house, the dream catcher hung from the bedpost on my side. A knot was loose on one of its hide strings; I fumbled to retie it, a bead dropping into my hand. I dragged the bead through the sunlight, mesmerized by its glittery paint. There was print on the inside: MADE IN TAWAIN. I thought of the store where we bought it: smelly bathrooms, loud restaurant in the back, rows of overpriced trinkets. I was sucking on a Jolly Rancher when I spotted it hanging beside the picture frames and ceramic howling wolves. I said: Oh, please can I get it? I promise to never back talk again! Mom said: Yeah, right.
I put the bead in my mouth and sucked on it like candy.
My brother joined us soon after our arrival. Shane was ten years older, one of two sons Mom had with her first husband. Prone to mood swings, he slept the mornings away and watched cartoons and rented tapes all night. He swore he met aliens somewhere at a bus stop near Boulder City and always brought home homeless cats after his pizza delivery shifts. At one point we had twenty cats in our two bedroom apartment. Mom couldn’t take all the meowing and cat hair. She piled all twenty cats into a clothes hamper and duct taped the lid shut. Clawing cat limbs poked out from the holes on the sides, beady yellow eyes staring at me unblinking. With one hand she dragged the hissing hamper down a flight of stairs and across the complex to her car, the cats digging into her thighs at every chance.
Shane brought from Vegas sculptures made in high school ceramic class, twisted and glossed in dark colors, where he stored quarters and buttons, bags of weed and rolling paper, neon lighters that’d make your thumb raw trying to get a flame. He slept on the couch because all the rooms were taken up, blackened, smelly socks forgotten in between the cushions. His brown hair long on top and slightly curly; we shared the same smile that made our eyes get all squinty. He wore Walmart jeans, shirts with graffiti art, and polos from pizza joints.
One day Shane looked at me from the couch, asking: “Want to learn how to drive?” We went outside, the sunlight warm on my face, sounds of cows in the distance. The Lincoln from the pictures sat in the yard, piles of dead leaves around its tires, the dashboard dusty and the windshield cracked down the middle.
He banged open the door, cursing loudly when the ignition wouldn’t turn over. Banged open the hood to peek inside. I was drawing rain turtles in the dirt because Mom said the state was in a drought. “Just outta fuel,” he said. He stalked the yard for a hose and something that looked like a plastic kettle. Then he went to the lawn mower Grandma had rolled out for him to use. Crouching, he sucked until he gagged loudly, the hose dripping into the kettle. I was in the front seat when he finished feeding lawn mower gas to the Lincoln.
“Lemme start it up for you,” he said.
I slid over the white bench, ripped fabric catching on my jeans. I wiped at my legs and my hand came away coated brown. Shane had to plead, call the car a motherfucker, a cock-sucking bitch, slam on the gas pedal and punched hard at the wide steering wheel, for the old thing to start. I jumped and punched at the air; Shane grinned and gave me a blue-eyed squint.
He drove up to the gate to the pasture and I jumped out to let him through. When we were a safe way from the house, he slipped out and gestured for me to take the wheel. “All right, your turn.”
The wheel was white and metal, and I had a hard time getting my fingers all the way around. I stared at Shane next to me, afraid to look ahead. I could barely see over the dashboard.
“Okay. Slowly push on the pedal.”
I scooted and stretched my leg until I could reach. The car lunged forward, Shane palmed the fuzzy ceiling to brace himself. None of us wore seatbelts; I didn’t know how fast we were going. Some cows grazed up ahead and I jerked left to chase after them. They scattered, heavy muscle moving beneath cowhide like grass in wind. “Slow down!” Shane yelled. I didn’t know how. We hurled forward at increasing speed. I marveled at our acceleration, like I had in the U-Haul on those wide highways, Mom slowing at every corner and asking me to look out for those flashing light fuckers. Trees on my left, an old wire fence on my right. Shane white-knuckled the crackling upholstery. We hit a rock or hole, and soared. Time stopped. The wheel hummed in my hands, metal in pudgy palms. We hit ground, and there was a breaking sound like a box filled with dishes flying from one corner to another in the U-Haul.
“Stop! Fucking Christ, stop!”
“How?” I screamed.
“Release the pedal!”
“I don’t know how to release it!”
“Just stop—fucking stop!”
I let go of both the wheel and pedal, and Shane lunged over to steer us to safety. He was pale and trembling when he drove us back.
Back in the dining room, Shane flopped down on the couch. “This kid almost got us killed.”
Grandma looked up from a sewing magazine. She wore an auburn wig today, deep red lipstick bleeding into the lines around her mouth. “Julie should have never brought this child. She thinks she knows what she’s doing, but she has made mistake after mistake since divorcing your father.”
“I don’t even remember what it was like when they were married, when it was just me and the bro.” Shane flipped through channels lazily.
“Shane started it!” I yelled. “He told me to drive!”
Grandma glared at me above her eyeglasses. “Lower your voice. Your great grandma needs all the rest she can get.”
“I didn’t think you were gonna try to kill us,” Shane said.
I picked at the wallpaper in the doorway, trying to think of something to say. “At least I don’t drink gas,” I mumbled.
Grandma snapped her fingers at me. “Get away from there! How dare you destroy your great grandma’s house?”
I kicked the wall and ran into the bedroom, slamming the door behind me.
“God damn it!”
Grandma’s voice drifted above sitcom laughter, the tears hot on my cheeks. I punched at the mattress, my skin itching beneath my sweater. I still felt the humming wheel in my hands, my body moving because of me.
Mom spent her days on the computer, playing checkers online with strangers and raising families on The Sims. She listened to Beatles CDs over and over and reminisced about her teenage years. Soon there were rumors that she was seeing an Indian fellow who worked at a gas station in the nearby town of Ada. I never met him, nor did I ever know his name. The family only referred to him as The Indian. Mom pretended she wasn’t dating anyone.
I occupied my time riding around the tiny neighborhoods in Ada with Shane. Shane liked to get Taco Bell to snack on in the car while he visited loads of people. He would park a little down the street from a house, tell me to stay put, and then run in quickly to grab baggies that fit in his palm. He was always giddy when he returned, his eyes wide and excited. He would fumble with the stereo, turning up the rap songs on his mix tapes that made the car shake and its speakers to buzz. Sometimes we got snow cones from the only place in town that sold them. Sometimes Shane got too angry about having to stand in line and stormed off instead.
Grandma ate lunch in restaurants every day. We usually met her at the Blue Moon Café, one of the only restaurants in town. The café had black and white checkers and pictures of Elvis on the walls; they served fried catfish and chicken fried steak. Shane and I liked getting their bacon cheeseburgers. Grandma liked drinking iced coffee that she made herself by ordering hot coffee and a glass of ice. She usually got a salad or a bloody steak because she was always on a fad diet. She spent the time checking her watch and wondering whether Mom had remembered to give Great Grandma her medication. “That back room burns like hell at this time in the afternoon,” she would say. “I just don’t think Julie can be trusted to help her.”
The house wasn’t big enough for five people. I was sent outside to run around, but it was hard to have fun without other kids. I got my rain turtle stick and hit tree trunks with all my might. I beat the ground, the side of the house. I smacked the top of my shoes, then my ankles and shins. I moved up to my thighs and hit until I ached and my skin burned. I dragged the stick across the wire fence at a run, trying to capture the feeling of being in the Lincoln. If only I knew how to release the pedal I would drive around the country and take pictures of mountains and camp out under the stars. No one would be able to find me, and Mom would worry and Grandma would be sorry.
I went inside but there was nowhere to sit near the television. I stayed in the dusty living room holding my rain stick. I saw a figure pass between bedrooms in the hall, the end of its blue bathrobe dragging across the floor. Grandma was in front of the television and Mom was on the computer. The figure crossed the hallway again; this time I made out its hunched back and unsteady gait. Somehow my bedridden Great Grandma was walking from bedroom to bedroom in search of something. I moved closer, terrified at the prospect of meeting her. I imagined she had white misty eyes like an oracle and black decaying teeth. I moved slowly along the beaten down carpet and found the doors ajar, but Great Grandma was nowhere in sight. I stopped in front of the only closed door and listened for her breathing. The door trembled like it did that first night, and I could hear murmuring above the whirling fan. With a shaking hand I tapped my stick to the door and waited for a reply. On the other side footsteps paced near the threshold, the murmuring continuing uninterrupted.
I knew what she sought in the cluttered rooms. I went to the bathroom and sat cross-legged on the puffy linoleum to rummage in the cabinets until I found a cardboard box of hair. The box was gold with green trim and smelled like old books. Inside was a heap of curls individually tied with green ribbon. Something deep down told me this was Great Grandma’s hair from when she had her whole life ahead of her. I caressed the soft curls with fingers sticky with dirt and tree sap. I felt like I was touching parts of a ghost.
Grandma came down the hall carrying pill bottles. “Get out of there! I can’t handle you messing with things with your Great Grandma so ill!”
I showed her the box. “This is what she needs.”
“That’s your great grandma’s hair from when she was a child. Now put that away and get into the tub. You smell to high heaven!”
I drew a bath to please her. I didn’t get undressed but stood next to the bathtub with the box of hair. I watched the rising water, the scattering bubbles and steam. I felt moist and hot in the face. I thought about the ancient woman in the next room over and all the years she lived on this land so flat I was sure I could see the ocean on the horizon. I overturned the box, a flood of brown locks floating like miniature ships on the water. They looked like a fleet trying to escape the faucet’s mega waterfall.
Grandma peeked in to see if I was bathing. “You little monster!” she said when she saw the drowning ribbons of hair.
She yanked my arm and clumsily tried to swat my butt. I tore off her wig and beat at her chest with my fists. I screamed until my lungs burned. Above the commotion came calls for help. Grandma froze, her nails biting into my arm, her wig crumpled at her feet. She stormed from the bathroom. “I’m coming!” she yelled to the walls.
The ambulance was called. Men in white squeezed a bed with wheels down the hallway. Great grandma was wheeled from the house, an oxygen mask over her face. Her hair was no longer brown and shiny, but a wispy gray. She was tiny under her knitted nightgown, her sickly white skin translucent in the afternoon sun. She seemed to not be whole, a disappearing body that had become another attachment for the bed. Peering into her blank eyes it was hard to believe she existed.
Linsey Scriven is currently an MFA student at Mills College in Oakland, California. She is from Las Vegas, Nevada, and her journalism can be read at the Las Vegas Review-Journal and Las Vegas CityLife. This is her first literary publication.