Best of 2019: Michelle Bracken

Being There

California, Summer, 1998

We had never gone away together, never taken a vacation. My mother had always been too busy cleaning houses, changing diapers, and dating worthless men. But she made time, one summer when I was fourteen going on fifteen, for us to go somewhere. and To escape our everyday drudgery among cacti and overwhelming heat. It would be my mother, my five-year-old sister, and me. We were leaving for sunny Monterey and didn’t know when we’d be back. I hoped never.

She drove our new used rust colored Chevy Caprice 1988 station wagon for the first time that morning. I packed the wagon with everything I thought we’d ever need: bright colored tank tops, jean shorts, beach sweaters, beef jerky and Pepsi, books (I was engrossed in Stephen King’s The Dark Half), maxi pads (I expected my period) and music to get us by for weeks even though we’d be gone for less than one.

My mother, thin and blonde, smiled her toothy grin as she buckled her seat belt. “Ready?” she had asked. I looked at our home, large and looming in our small desert town just outside of Joshua Tree, removed from everyone and everything, and nodded.

My sister, thin and blonde like my mother, sat in the back with coloring books and crayons. She didn’t bother us. Wouldn’t bother us. I sat shotgun with my collection of tapes. I had organized them that week prior as if I was being graded by some god of music. I had wanted to impress my mother, impress anyone who would have heard John Lennon crooning while our windows were rolled down.

“Put that in,” my mother said, nodding toward my lap.  He was sitting there. John. I can’t remember now the first song that we played, but at this moment I can hear the lyrics to John’s rendition of “Stand by Me” and remember how I told my mother it would be a good song to ice skate to, how it rocked and rolled, how it thumped and shook.

“For her,” I said, nodding towards my sister. “She could skate to this, it’d be perfect.” My sister couldn’t ice skate, had never seen an ice rink, but my mother and I would watch the ice skaters in the Olympics and imagine that my mother’s mini-me would one day skate on that ice and make us proud. “Yeah,” she smiled, “it’s a good one.”

The scenery all looked the same. I was used to the emptiness of the desert, to the blue sky that housed no clouds. I was used to the freeways, to the dirtiness of the freeway cities, and to the brown filth that city people called sky. I was used to all of that.

We talked about John, my mother and I. We talked about when he died and how it was weird that I was born the year he was killed and that maybe it meant something, maybe we were connected somehow, me and John, and that’s why I was so drawn to him and his music and his politics and how even I loved Yoko. My mother never made me feel stupid or obsessed or insane. She never corrected me, never told me that I was born two years after he was murdered.I smiled and felt that my mother understood me. I turned and peered at the back seat. My sister had fallen asleep with a blue crayon held tightly in her little fingers.

We reached Bakersfield a day later. Yellow hills, too dry for grass, bordered us on that empty highway, freeway, whatever way that took us there. The windows were rolled way down, had been that way since the air conditioner broke the day before. The heat made me thirsty and nauseous.

We stopped at the first diner we saw. I rushed to the bathroom; my stomach had been hurting and I knew why. It was that time.

“It’s my period,” I groaned, sitting at the plastic red booth. The sweaty undersides of my thighs stuck to the seat as I tried to make myself more comfortable.

“Sorry, hun,” my mother said. “Maybe you should get a salad or some soup. Something light.” She brushed her blonde hair from her tanned face and then did the same to my sister.

I tried to eat some vegetable soup but the tomato broth made me think too much of the blood gushing between my legs and I had to think of good thoughts, of the Tejano singer, Selena, singing “Bidi Bidi Bum Bum” so that I wouldn’t spew my insides all over the table.

We got back on the road.

“We’ll stop in the city,” my mother said, “We’ll find a room and then you can take a hot bath.” She patted my thigh. My sister reached over the front seat and handed me a thin piece of paper: a bear in a polka dot dress. She had stayed in the lines, the browns and purples never crossed paths.

Before we got a room, the wagon overheated.

“Turn on the heater,” my mother directed.

I didn’t ask questions. Did as I was told. My insides felt twisted, and the heat only made it worse. I didn’t think we’d make it anywhere.

“Where to stop? Where to stop?” my mother muttered, smoke billowing from the engine.

We passed Walmart, KMart, liquor stores and green trees that I had never seen and didn’t know what to call them. I still don’t.

“Henry’s!” she yelled out.

I followed her gaze and saw Henry’s in bright green lettering; the mechanic’s shop was dark and dirty, grease rubbed all over.

She parked where she could, and Henry came out to meet us. He was a giant of a man, maybe in his late sixties, with a gray, unruly beard that sprouted all over his face. My mother sent me across the busy street with my sister, her little fingers wrapped around my own.

I looked across the way and saw a museum, not one I wanted to visit. It looked more like a park, and it boasted the first homes and buildings erected in Bakersfield before it was Bakersfield. They were in prime condition, 18 something-something style. There would be no air conditioning, no haven from the heat.

But my mother gave me ten bucks, so we did the tour. My sister and I had wanted to go inside but couldn’t, weren’t allowed to. We looked through windows and studied the porcelain figures that someone had set up to look like people from the past.

“I wanna touch ’em!” she cried, her little hands wrapped around the golden doorknob of the first dentist office.

“Let go!” I yelled, my arms around her waist.

She kicked and screamed.

I took her outside of the entrance, where we sat on wet grass. It wasn’t long before she wanted our mother.

“I’m going!” she had pouted, running for the busy street.

I ran after her, grabbed her, and told her that it was our job to stay where we were, to protect the people in those houses. This would stop her for a bit, and then she would try again for the street. I could see all too clearly her mangled body, covered in blood, crushed beneath Toyotas and Fords. I saw that for an hour, two hours, maybe three.  Saw that every time I raced after her.

The sun was no longer over us when our mother returned. It was cooler, my cramps had subsided, and the sky had turned pink. My little sister saw her first, saw her cross the street and wave.

“Look! Mom!” she had yelled, giddy with anticipation. She took off, her blonde hair bounced behind her.

I got to my feet and followed.

“Ready to go?” my mother said, “I didn’t think he’d do it, but he did.”

“Did what?” I knew nothing of cars. Would never know anything of cars.

“The radiator had a big, gaping hole in it. All fixed now.” She smiled and I took her hand.

We ran across the street.

Henry sat on a red crate, playing with his massive beard.

 “My girls, the ones I was telling you about,” my mother said, presenting us.

I smiled awkwardly, my sister posed faithfully. Henry gave a warm smile and stood to shake our hands. I looked at the grease on his fat fingers and pondered whether I would be disrespectful. I shook his hand.

“I’d like to sing you all a song,” he said.

We followed him to a small room, off in the corner, watched him duck his head as he entered. He pulled up a worn-out wooden chair that squeaked underneath him.

 I stood in the doorway and watched and listened as he played his acoustic guitar. Observed every movement he made, every note he uttered. He sang of a woman in a green dress. I didn’t see an old man on an old chair, and I didn’t see myself standing in a hot, stuffy room. I saw an older gentleman sitting on a park bench in the middle of spring with daisies in his hands, asking the lady beside him if she’d like to go out for dinner sometime.

When Henry finished, we all clapped and smiled, cooed how good it was. Well, my sister and my mother did that.  I  smiled and  clapped.

Henry wiped his eyes.

We left Bakersfield in the morning. And she couldn’t stop talking about him, how sweet his song was.

“Wouldn’t that be it?” my mother asked, looking at me.

“Be what?”

“Everything. He’s the sweetest guy I’ve ever met.”

Then she looked ahead, continued driving, and didn’t say anything more until we reached Monterey.

We went on our journey. We went along the water, along Pacific Coast Highway. We shivered at the ocean breeze (the desert heat had spoiled us), we laughed at the seagulls and how they crapped on rich people’s cars, we collected rocks and seashells, got sand in our underwear, in between our toes, wore sweaters while we sunbathed, while we read books under the sun, and ate bean burritos at Taco Bell because that’s what my mother did when she was fourteen going on fifteen at the beach.

I played Marvin Gaye on our way home. I sang along to every song, pictured my sister skating to “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” and “Inner City Blues.” She sat in the back, drank all the Pepsi, colored more pictures of bears in dresses, and ordered every seven minutes that we stop so she could pee.

I wanted to savor those moments, driving in and out of tight curves, seeing so much green that I swore my sister had been there earlier with her crayons. I treasured being cold at the beach, even though it was summer, and I treasured sitting in that big hulk of a car, listening to my mother hum with Marvin and talk about the time she was seventeen and camped at some beach with marshmallows and pot because that’s what kids did then. Maybe they still do, she had said.

My mother still has that station wagon. Still drives it. Everyday. Everywhere. The air conditioner still doesn’t work and the windows are never rolled down because they can never be rolled back up. We’ve talked about going other places. And sometimes to the same places, maybe see Henry — but we never make plans. But there are days, nights — when I think of that summer, fourteen going on fifteen. I see my mother, clapping her hands as Henry sings, clapping her hands as if he’s the only thing left in the world to clap for. I wonder if she ever claps like that anymore.

BIO: Michelle Bracken lives in Los Angeles. “Being There” was previously published in Empty Mirror in 2017. Her work has appeared in Litro, The Baltimore Review, Forklift, Ohio, The Superstition Review, RipRap and elsewhere. She received a notable mention in The Best American Essays of 2016.

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